Frank Davidson (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's Intent,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 31, Part 2, 1963, pp. 68-71.

[In the following essay, Davidson argues that Hawthorne's purpose in “Young Goodman Brown” was to demonstrate the power of an “evil thought” to corrupt psychologically and ultimately to lead an individual to “an evil deed.”]

One considers the number and variety of attempts made to clarify the meaning of “Young Goodman Brown”1 and wonders whether there is perhaps some simpler explanation of the story than has been made. May it have been the author's purpose to have the reader realize keenly the transforming power and the paralyzing deceptiveness of an evil thought, which once entertained, starts into action subtle psychological processes against which one may make resolves but which, begun, proceed with increasing strength to demoniacal frenzy and the perpetration of an evil deed?

About the period of the publication of the story (1835), the author was displaying considerable interest in the relation of the “evil in every human heart” to evil thought and evil deed. In 1836, for example, he set down among themes for stories, the observation that evil may remain latent in the heart through a lifetime or may, through circumstance, be suddenly activated;2 that a man may “flatter himself with the idea that he would not be guilty of some certain wickedness,—as, for instance, to yield to the personal temptations of the Devil,—yet to find ultimately, that he was at that very time committing that same wickedness.”3 Not later than 1836 he wrote “Fancy's Show-Box,” in which he stated that “It is not until the crime is accomplished that Guilt clinches its gripe upon the guilty heart, and claims it for its own” and expresses the hope “that all the dreadful consequences of sin will not be incurred, unless the act have set its seal upon the thought.”4

The over-all pattern Hawthorne employs in “Goodman Brown” is similar to that used by Shakespeare in the first two acts of Macbeth. Confused by the suggestion of evil lodged in his mind by the witches, Macbeth soliloquizes:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not


Conflict follows between conscience and evil desire. He cannot put out of mind the prophecy that he will be king; neither is he willing to transform it to fact by murder; he wavers between but, despite his resolves to the contrary, moves toward the evil until his will is out of his control. Circumstances buttress the desire, as do outside persuasion and ocular illusion. The conflict ends as he announces, “I have done the deed” (italics added). Remorse and bitterness immediately ensue.5

In Macbeth and “Young Goodman Brown” the evil thought moves quickly to consummation; its course is a single night. Witchcraft is associated with events of both, as are deceptions of eye or ear or both and strange disorders in the natural world including “lamentings heard i’ the air.” The evil, however, to which Brown succumbs is more inclusive and profound than is murder; it is a cynical skepticism based in the conviction, falsely arrived at, that the nature and destiny of man are evil.

The theme Hawthorne is primarily interested in in “Young Goodman Brown,” is what he omits in The Scarlet Letter —the evil thought in its progress toward the guilty deed of which that work recounts only the consequences. Of the eighteen pages of the story...

(This entire section contains 2378 words.)

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as it appears inThe Complete Works, the author allots one to the farewell between Brown and his wife, Faith: her plea that he not leave her on this particular night, his chiding her for doubt (the critical motive of the story), and his “Amen” to her “God bless you.” The final page is about the goodman's mental state after his harrowing experiences of the night. The sixteen pages intervening are the account of Brown's journey into the dark forest. In those pages Hawthorne traces the visible course Brown pursues, part way with a guide, and simultaneously the invisible inner journey from the time he entertains the evil thought to the moment when he pleads with Faith to “resist the wicked one.” The goodman's experiences he presents in four scenes, each closing with a halt in the travel, each successive one mounting in intensity beyond the preceding.

In the first the goodman enters the forest and meets the devil, with whom he has previously made tryst. When urged to mend his pace he comes to a full stop, resolved, now that he has kept his appointment, to return home. On his companion's suggesting, however, that they walk on, reasoning as they go, he “unconsciously” resumes his walk.

As they proceed he states his scruples against continuing the journey, but he continues: he would not violate family decorum or the respect he has for the traditional piety of his native region. These defenses his companion crushes with what seems to be some timely truth that comes as a surprise to Brown: the devil claims long and close acquaintance with the father and the grandfather,6 in whose image, it seems, he appears; and he has had an active part in the government of New England. Instead of coming to the rescue of his family and community, the goodman counters with another scruple, the awe in which he holds his minister. This meeting with ridicule, which “nettles” him, he pleads his love for his wife, who, he says, would be heart-broken if she knew his errand. With a sympathetic gesture concerning Faith and a placating suggestion that the goodman go his own way, the companion attempts to allay the resentment he has stirred. He quickly and deftly nullifies his seeming concession by casually directing Brown's attention to what purports to be the figure of Goody Cloyse on the path ahead. Brown conceals himself lest she see the company he is in but keeps watch. Her presence in the forest and her ease in conversing with the devil (as much an ocular deception as what seemed the movement of the snake carved on the devil's staff, for she disappears with mysterious suddenness),7 astonishes Brown and moves him deeply, for in his childhood she had been his religious counselor. Taking advantage of Brown's discomfiture, the companion urges more “speed,” and, as they move along, discourses “so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of the auditor [Brown] than to be suggested by himself.” But when Brown sees twigs and little boughs of a freshly-plucked maple stick wither and dry up at the touch of his companion's hand, he “sat himself down on the stump of a tree and refused to go any farther.”8 So end the first and second phases of the journey of the irresolute goodman. Trust in family virtue, trust in the religious tradition of his community, trust in the sincerity and goodness of his childhood instructor have been subverted, and the devil's thought seems to have become one with his own.

His companion is so assured now of no deviation in him that he tosses him his maple staff and quickly vanishes. Ironically, Brown congratulates himself on his own exhibition of strength, rests complacently a few moments in the promise of meeting his minister next day with a clear conscience, of looking into the deacon's eyes unshrinkingly, and of spending the remainder of the passing night with Faith. His rosy contemplation is interrupted, however, by the sound of horses' hoofs. Then follow aural deceptions of the presence of deacon and minister on the forest path. Their conversation, penetrating his covert, convinces him they are bound to the same destination as he. He does not see them, though he makes an effort to do so, nor do they hinder his view of “the strip of bright sky athwart which they must have passed.” The shock he sustains causes him to “catch hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart” and to entertain doubt as to whether there is a heaven above him. Then, sight of the blue arch of the sky brings momentary assurance, and he makes one more resolve, that, with “heaven above and Faith below [he] will yet stand firm against the devil.” But even as he lifts his hands to pray,9 a cloud suddenly hides the stars; strange cries that seem to involve Faith mingle with the noises of wind in the trees, though he “doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest.” Another deception, optical and tactual, follows, as he watches a pink ribbon, emblem of Faith, flutter down and lodge on a branch, from which he seizes it. Actual? We hear no more of it until he reaches home and sees it decorating the head of his wife. Deluded fancy, however, convinces him his last bastion has crumbled. Grief, rage, and terror master him, and any shred of resistance he might yet possess fades. Confident now “[t]here is no good on earth; and sin … but a name,” he invokes the devil and, like Northumberland on hearing of the death of his son, invites the chaos of total disorder and darkness.

The tempo quickens. He sets forth again, this time at such speed as to appear “to fly along the forest path” until he reaches the scene of the witches' rendezvous. There he seems to hear a familiar tune, often sung at the village meetinghouse, but it trails off into “sounds of the benighted wilderness”; he think he recognizes in the congregation assembled a score of the “church members of Salem village,” though his sight, says the narrator, may have suffered from “gleams of light flashing over the obscure field.”10 Near the baptismal font he meets Faith, and the two stand, the only pair, so it seems, “who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world.” He cries to her to look to heaven and resist.11 All, however, is but the deception of a mind seduced by evil; for, “hardly had he spoken when he found himself amid calm night and solitude,” staggering against a rock that felt chill and damp, his cheek sprinkled “with the coldest dew” from a twig that a moment before had seemed to be on fire.

The brief conclusion speaks of the immediate and the lasting effects on Goodman Brown of his night's adventure with an evil thought that got out of control. The story opens on a note of doubt spoken facetiously by Brown; it closes with his own doubt's expansion into cynical disbelief of any good in man. “Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright!” Hawthorne wrote of Giovanni in “Rappaccini's Daughter”; “It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions.”


  1. F. N. Cherry, “The Sources of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” AL [American Literature], V (Jan., 1934), 342-348, states that the “chief interest … of the story lies in the graphic portrayal of a witches' Sabbath” and introduces in partial support of this view some details Hawthorne probably found in Cervantes' El Coloquio de los Perros. In interpreting the story the critic assumes that the characters whom Brown saw or heard in the forest practiced witchcraft. Richard Fogle, “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” NEQ [The New England Quarterly], XVIII (Dec., 1945), 448-465, treats what he considers ambiguities in the story and analyzes the near-flawless art that harmonizes them with the story. Thomas E. Connolly, “‘Young Goodman Brown,’ an Attack on Puritanic Calvinism,” AL, XXVIII (Nov., 1956), 370-375, examines the story as satire. D. C. McKeithan, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: an Interpretation,” MLN, LXVII (Feb., 1952), 95-96, states, correctly I believe, that the story is that of a “man [everyman] whose sin led him to consider all other people sinful.” Mark Van Doren, The Best of Hawthorne (N.Y., 1951), presents some similarities between the story and The Scarlet Letter and perceptively points out the failure of both Brown and Dimmesdale to understand “the presence of evil inside the imagination,” and how, “when Brown is made aware of it … it becomes a monster with which he cannot cope … a monster of his own making.” (p. 416)

  2. The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Wayside ed., 13 vols. (Boston, n. d.), IX, 43. Subsequent references to Hawthorne's Works are to this edition.

  3. Ibid., IX, 38.

  4. Ibid., I, 256, 257. Italics added. This relationship of evil thought to evil deed may have been suggested by Isabella in her plea for Angelo (Measure for Measure, V.i.446-451).

  5. Cf. the first 679 lines of The Rape of Lucrece for another example of the pattern. Of Tarquin, Shakespeare says that “some untimely thought did instigate / His all too timeless speed” (11. 43-44). Later Tarquin reviews his conflict (11. 498-504) from his conceiving the thought to the moment before the commission of the deed: the strife within his soul, his consciousness of the consequences of his act, his wavering, his loss of self-control. The last three acts of Othello exemplify an extended and complex form of this pattern.

  6. Brown's companion is perhaps telling the truth here for a purpose; Brown later thinks he has a vision of his father beckoning him toward the devil's baptismal font. Cf. Banquo's observation on the “instruments of darkness” sometimes telling truths “to win us to our harm” (Macbeth, I.iii.122-126).

  7. Cf. Macbeth, II.i.33-34: “Is this a dagger that I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” And Banquo, after the first meeting with the witches questioned, “Were such things here as we do speak about?” (I.iii.83)

  8. Cf. Macbeth, I.vii.31: “We will proceed no further in this business.”

  9. Cf. Macbeth, II.ii.28-31.

  10. Throughout the story Hawthorne employs a device that is common to all his fiction—a sly casting of doubt on any experience he records as fact which is, on the face of it preternatural, supernatural, or highly unusual. This device has, I think, caused some critics to find ambiguities in his work where, perhaps, none exists.

  11. Brown, of course, “had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought …” (Hawthorne, Works, II, 102).


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“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.”

Biographical Information

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.”

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

“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

James W. Mathews (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: “Antinomianism in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 73-75.

[In the following essay, Mathews suggests that Brown's passivity—the result of his antinomianist belief that he is saved regardless of his personal actions—leads him into error and doom.]

Almost everyone commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” has noted that its general theme is the loss of personal faith. On the specific application of certain symbols, however, there has been a good deal of disagreement. Some time ago Thomas E. Connolly re-asserted the paramount allegorical significance of the character Faith and justifiably concluded that “this story is Hawthorne's criticism of the teachings of Puritanic-Calvinism,”1 though he limited the object of Hawthorne's criticism to predestination. Giving further scrutiny to Faith can establish a more specific probability of meaning, which converts to theological terms Hawthorne's ubiquitous thesis that the most serious personal evil is retreat from reality and responsibility.

A doctrine of one group of Calvinists during the time depicted in the story was Antinomianism,2 which insisted that salvation was of faith, not of works. If good works existed, they came only as a secondary by-product of the mysterious divine grace; personal volition was de-emphasized, if not completely eliminated. Grace itself was contingent on the degree of the individual's faith; and a strong faith, which usually resulted in an emotional experience, was evidence enough of one's predestined salvation. According to Perry Miller, one question inherent in Antinomianism was “since the recipient of grace is assured of salvation without ever doing anything to deserve it, should he not surrender to the intoxication of certainty and give no further thought to his behavior?”3 Extreme Antinomians among the High Calvinists believed that “if a man was elected and predestined to salvation, no power in heaven or on earth could prevent it; and hence, no matter what the moral conduct of a man might be, his salvation was sure if he was one of the elect; the wicked actions of such a man were not sinful, and he had no occasion to confess his sins or break them off by repentance.”4

“Young Goodman Brown” depicts a man who is so confident in his recent union with faith that he walks superciliously into the devil's own revival without any fear whatsoever. Hawthorne tells us nothing of Goodman Brown's earlier life and acts. Though Brown seems to enjoy a good reputation, there is no reference to his good works. Unlike Everyman, he does not produce them as a last-minute testimony to his worthiness. Only his faith exists, deluding him into passivity. Faith's admonition to “put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed tonight”5 suggests that the influence of Faith over Brown is essentially negative. The insubstantiality of Brown's religious faith manifests itself in the pink ribbons of his wife's cap; their texture is aery and their color the pastel of infancy.

Brown is aware that his secret nocturnal journey is for an “evil purpose.” He does not enter the forest ignorantly or under duress. He is prepared to witness evil and perhaps partake. But as an Antinomian, he would believe that no evil is charged against those with faith: “I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven,” he cries. He is quick to exonerate himself and brand the others faithless despite his own deliberate act of keeping the evil rendezvous. He has his Faith, and the devil leads him into false confidence early when he says: “I would not for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us that Faith should come to any harm.” Faith is secure at home and is Brown's supposed mystical shield against whatever may menace him. In explaining to the devil why he is late, he says that “Faith kept me back a while.” Faith, thus, is temporary protection, functioning only in isolation. Her own apprehension over Brown's leaving points to her lack of remote spiritual control over her husband.

Since Brown is confident that the faith of his ancestors has protected them from the devil, he feels that he too will turn back in time or at least avoid permanent harm. As evidence of the righteousness of his people and of his righteousness, he stresses the theoretical side of religion with the practical as secondary: “We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness.” Then amid suggestions that his own ancestors have been prone to evil notwithstanding their faith, Brown indignantly asks whether such is “any reason why I should quit my dear Faith” and join their company. Further, he asserts, “with heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil.” The poignant irony in Brown's show of certainty is that he lost the protection of Faith the very moment he left the confines of their cottage. Soon he hears the “voice of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain; and all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward.” Faith is now not only a symbol of Brown's tottering assurance; she also reflects the lost hope of all who have suffered the Antinomian delusion of the abstract.

When Brown identifies this voice as that of his wife, he declares that “Faith is gone” and he becomes “maddened with despair.” Now, he thinks, “there is no good on earth”; and in the sudden divestment of his old theology, his negative conclusion is understandable. Faith, who has appeared invulnerable at home removed from any encounter with sin, has become one of the devil's disciples. And as Faith is, Brown is. They stand together: “… the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.” Brown concurs with the devil's declaration that “evil is the nature of mankind.” To a relativist and not a dogmatist, this recognition would be taken in stride. But the inverted Brown retreats. With one final, desperate attempt to preserve his heretofore comfortable doctrine of assurance, he urges Faith to “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.” Here he voices the passive Antinomian means of salvation: the union of faith below and grace from above.

Though he does not see whether Faith follows his advice or not, Brown has evidence enough that passive faith is ineffectual. Hence his silent disdain of his “pious” forebears and contemporaries; in his condemnation of them he circumstantially accuses himself. He thereafter becomes “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man,” and he dies in “gloom.” After his experience he becomes as passively cynical as he has been passively trusting. He knows that Faith has been false; but what he never fathoms is that her weakness (and the repulsive grossness of all mankind) is the result of his own theological error and is exaggerated by his continuous passivity.


  1. “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism,” American Literature, XXVIII (November 1956), 375.

  2. That Hawthorne was aware of the furor caused by Antinomians in Massachusetts is evident in his highly ironic sketch of Mrs. Hutchinson. See The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Parsons Lathrop, ed. (Boston, 1883), XII, 217-226.

  3. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1954), p. 369.

  4. J. Macbride Sterrett in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, ed. (New York, 1928), I, 582.

  5. All quotations from “Young Goodman Brown” are from Works, II, 89-106.

Principal Works

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Fanshawe: A Tale (novel) 1828

Twice-Told Tales (sketches and short stories) 1837

Twice-Told Tales (second series) (sketches and short stories) 1842

Mosses from an Old Manse (sketches and short stories) 1846

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance (novel) 1850

The House of the Seven Gables (novel) 1851

The Snow Image and Other Tales (short stories) 1851

The Blithedale Romance (novel) 1852

Life of Franklin Pierce (biography) 1852

A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (short stories) 1852

Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys; Being a Second Wonder-Book (short stories) 1853

The Marble Faun; or, The Romance of Monte Beni (novel) 1860; published in England as Transformation; or, The Romance of Monte Beni, 1860

Our Old Home (essays) 1863

Passages from the American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne (journal) 1868

Passages from the English Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne (journal) 1870

Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne (journal) 1872

Septimius Felton; or, The Elixer of Life (unfinished novel) 1872

The Dolliver Romance and Other Pieces (unfinished novel) 1876

Doctor Grimshawe's Secret: A Romance (unfinished novel) 1883

B. Bernard Cohen (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: “Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity and Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 104, No. 4, October, 1968, pp. 349-70.

[In the following essay, Cohen contends that Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity, a work about the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, inspired Hawthorne to write “Young Goodman Brown.”]

Despite much praise and many fine words expended on Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown,” interpretations of this well-wrought tale have varied as widely as the critics and their personal biases. The abundant ambiguities present in the story yield opportunity to all: those who would see Hawthorne as confirming Calvinism's central doctrine of man's innate depravity, others who view him as rejecting the same tenet, some who would apply a latter-day symbolism involving phallic pine trees and sexual guilt, and still others who would by expert juggling of old ideas in new semantic dress convey the impression that an original interpretation is being offered.1

After such great argument it is refreshing and heartening to see an admirable article by Professor David Levin, in which he sanely urges that we “try to read the story in terms that were available to Hawthorne.”2 Professor Levin cogently argues that belief in the validity of spectral evidence, as it was acceptable to the magistrates, offered the rationale on which Hawthorne constructed “Young Goodman Brown,” and that any attempt to interpret the story must take this factor into account. If heeded, this plea that we consider the tale in its historical context will prevent us from wandering in an hypothetical forest as variously populated as was that which Brown entered on the fateful night.

Even before Professor Levin's essay, others had explored Hawthorne's interest in the Salem history that underlies “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne's concern about the role of Judge Hathorne in the witchcraft delusion of 1692 has long been recognized by biographers and critics, and the autobiographical expression of his guilt feelings in the Custom House essay is frequently cited. Further evidence of his ancestral burden appears in such works as “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” “Alice Doane's Appeal,” and “Main Street.”

It is also generally understood that Hawthorne during his long years of apprenticeship read widely in old state papers, legal records, musty sermons, and other colonial relics. Here he often encountered significant names linked with Judge Hathorne, and he made use of them in his fiction. G. Harrison Orians and Tremaine McDowell were among the first to point out that some of the characters appearing in “Young Goodman Brown” represent actual citizens of Salem who had been accused as witches before Hathorne.3 In a later study Professor Arlin Turner disclosed the names of two additional colonial worthies who are prominent figures in the story, and, in extension of the investigation, attributed much of the basic material to Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World.4

Unnoticed among these autobiographical and historical stimulants to Hawthorne's imagination is a book that was in his personal library—Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity. This slender volume was dedicated to Judge Hathorne, among others, and across from his ancestor's name on the dedicatory page Nathaniel Hawthorne affixed his own signature.5 The contents include a sermon delivered in Salem Village on 24 March 1692, when John Hathorne conducted a vigorous interrogation of accused witches.6 In an appendix Lawson related his own observations of the witchcraft phenomena and other “Remarks [which] were afterwards, (at my Request) Revised and Corrected by some who Sate Judges on the Bench …”7

A careful examination of Hawthorne's copy of Christ's Fidelity reveals how the volume, so intimately linked with the grim judge who hovered always on the threshold of his descendant's consciousness, may have provided the imaginative impetus to the creation of “Young Goodman Brown.” The details in the Appendix of Lawson's book and the theology contained in his jeremiad gave Hawthorne the psychological basis for, and the artistic approaches to, his story. In effect, “Young Goodman Brown” is an imaginative and ironic rejoinder to Lawson's version of the witchcraft phenomena.8


Undoubtedly wide and random reading contributed to “Young Goodman Brown,” but emotional attachment may have made indelible some of the details found in Lawson's Appendix to the 1704 volume. This enumerates matters of record which could have suggested to Hawthorne the psychological basis of his story with its dream-like atmosphere so suitable to the mental aberrations involved in spectral experiences. Above all, some details cited by Lawson may have provided Hawthorne the master psychological and structural symbol of his story: the pink ribbons.

Basic to the psychological structure of “Young Goodman Brown” is the problem of what constitutes reality. The crucial question may be phrased thus: Do the events in the historical and fictional Salem Village actually occur, or does the imagination or heart, no matter how distorted, create its own vision of reality? Accepting as truth the existence of supernatural agents capable of intervening in human activities, Lawson and Cotton Mather consider the seemingly unreal witchcraft occurrences as reality and attribute them to the power of Satan. For Hawthorne the events have reality only as they exist in an aberrant human mind which conjures up its own spectres and doubts. Utilizing recorded data from Puritan history, Hawthorne offers us a psychological version of reality as it might be created in the mind of any man.

The witchcraft experiences recounted by Lawson in his Appendix stress the power of evil spirits to alter reality. For instance, the testimony of Joseph Ring describes the phenomenon of forced transport to witches' meetings. To Lawson and the officials of Salem Village, Ring's adventure is the work of evil spirits and hence evidence against witches. To Hawthorne, transport represents an excellent example of the mind's distortion of reality and serves as the fundamental motif of the journey in his story.

As a faithful recorder of contemporary events, Lawson inscribes the following account of Ring's testimony:

A Person who has been frequently Transported to and fro by the Devils, for the space of near Two Years … did depose upon Oath, that … he was many times Bodily Transported, to places where the Witches were gathered together, and that he there saw Feasting and Dancing … [and] he did take his Oath, that he did with his Bodily Eyes, see some of the Accused at those Witch-meetings several times; … he also proved by sundry Persons that at those times of Transport, he was Bodily absent from his Abode, and could no where be found, but being met with by some on the Road at a distance from his home; was suddenly conveyed away from them.9

This passage helps explain the feeling of compulsion which Brown expresses when Faith tries to prevent his departure from Salem Village. In the same account there are also hints of Brown's evasive actions: the hide-and-seek played by Brown with Goody Cloyse, as well as his shifting aside from the woodland path to avoid a direct encounter with the minister and Deacon Gookin. Brown's later frenzied rush through the dark forest to the rendezvous reflects the hypnotic force of the trance-like experience of transport. Neither Ring, the case history, nor Brown, the fictional character, actually had such experiences. Both perceived them only in their imaginations, but both undoubtedly believed in them.

Other details in Lawson's Appendix may have added to the atmosphere of delusion which Hawthorne created in his story. The situation in which Deacon Gookin and the minister force Brown—or so he believes—to come to the baptismal font reflects the records kept by Lawson.10 There are also vivid descriptions of the sacramental rites of witches, as in this passage:

They were also Accused to hold and Administer Diabolical Sacraments, viz., a Mock-Baptism, and a Devil-Supper, at which Cursed Imitations of the Sacred Institutions of our Blessed Lord, they used Forms of Words to be trembled at, in the very Rehearsing. … At their Cursed Supper, they were said to have Red Bread, and Red Drink, and when they pressed an Afflicted person to Eat and Drink thereof, she turned away her Head, and Spit at it, and said, I will not Eat, I will not Drink, it is Blood, that is not the Bread of Life, that is not the Water of Life, and I will have none of yours.11

Here Hawthorne may have obtained the artistic and psychological clue to the magnificent rendering of lights, shadows, colors, and sounds filtering through Brown's consciousness.

To this climactic scene Lawson could have contributed other details. For example, the appearance of the ghost of Brown's father and mother may be an echo of Lawson's interest in testimony that ghosts of his own wife and daughter had appeared to the afflicted (pp. 98-100). In this detail Hawthorne, of course, saw an opportunity to place a supernatural vision within the framework of an experience of transport which already demonstrated dislocation of reality. For Brown, this mental distortion leads to family discord and distrust—a reflection of Lawson's reports of children accusing their parents of witchcraft (pp. 118-119). Even the devil-minister's powerful pronunciamento on the supremacy and universality of evil finds a parallel in Lawson: “They affirmed that many of those Wretched Souls, had been Baptized … and as to the manner of Administration, the Great Officer of Hell … said over them, Thou art mine, and I have Full Power over thee, and thereupon they Engaged and Covenanted to Renounce God, Christ, their Sacred Baptism, and the whole way of Gospel Salvation, and to use their utmost Endeavours, to Oppose the Kingdom of Christ, and to set up and Advance the Kingdom of Satan.”12 The words uttered in this rite become for Brown the reality of a lifetime after he returns to the village.

Each of the parallels cited thus far suggests that reality in Hawthorne's story is not derived from the power of evil spirits but from Brown's fancied construction of events. In each detail which Hawthorne took from his source or sources, the real and unreal, the familiar and unfamiliar, the natural and supernatural become inextricably mingled in the deluded consciousness of Brown. In fact, since the same problem of the nature of reality is implicit in the many case histories cited by Lawson, Hawthorne's reading of the Appendix may have inspired him to focus on the psychological distortions within one mind representative of many in Salem Village. In this sense, Brown's fearful single journey symbolizes the frightful experience of an entire community.

Although the story is told by an omniscient author, some of whose comments and judgements are quite clear, Hawthorne did limit himself almost exclusively to the consciousness of his central character. Within this consciousness so uncertain of actuality, the experience of transport can indeed begin with a confrontation of a man (as devil image) who resembles Brown's grandfather. Thus to Brown the sacraments so customary in his everyday religion become part of a Satanic meeting. Thus people familiar and close to him are participants in his vision of the distortion of God's ordinances. Thus even witch spectres and the ghosts of dead people mingle in the surrealistic experience stirred by his own fancy.

Since Hawthorne concentrated on the inner experiences of this single representative consciousness, he attempted to render an atmosphere suitable to the central mind of the story. That atmosphere blurs any true comprehension of reality, creates constant tension between the trappings of everyday life and spectres, and ultimately conveys a set of dream-like experiences. Hawthorne's basic method is to create in the forest those shifting lights and shadows and strange images and sounds which lurk at the threshold between the imagined and the actual stimuli of vision and hearing, and which, as critics have pointed out, are powerfully rendered in the story. It is an atmosphere adapted to the psychological distortions going on in Salem Village—distortions which a Lawson or a Mather could not understand as well as Hawthorne did.

Because it has not been fully understood that Hawthorne created ambiguities of atmosphere and plot detail in “Young Goodman Brown” in order to capture in fiction the hallucinatory nature of transport, much quibbling has occurred about whether the experiences of Brown were reality or dream. Hawthorne never explicitly says that the sequence of events during the forest journey is a dream. After he poses the choice, he does refer twice to these occurrences as a dream. However, it is more important to realize that from the details included in Lawson's book Hawthorne chose to create not necessarily a dream but a dream-like or visionary atmosphere appropriate to his psychological interpretation of historical events. Essentially interested in mental and emotional conflicts and aberrations, Hawthorne uses the ingredients of the dream to convey psychological states. The dream-like quality of the story serves beautifully to portray the mingling of the real and unreal, the consequent blurrings of actuality, and the creation of a new kind of reality which encompasses distrust and loss of faith in man and even God. Thus neither Ring nor Brown literally dreamed his journey; in Hawthorne's view each underwent a profound psychological experience which may have seemed like a dream.

The most important factor in the portrayal of Brown's wavering consciousness is Faith's pink ribbons. Some accounts in Lawson's Appendix help explain their prominent function in the psychological and narrative structure of the story. As Professor Levin has pointed out, Faith's pink ribbons are related to spectral evidence, which was a baffling and agonizing problem during the witchcraft trials. Strangely enough, the two seemingly disparate elements—the spectral evidence which was used to convict and hang nineteen people, and the innocent pink ribbon which in her husband's eyes condemned a simple housewife—are inextricable.

As Lawson's sermon, which will be discussed, shows, the spectral aspect of the witchcraft hysteria goes back to the Puritan's theological belief in a titanic Satan of chameleon nature. During the disturbances of 1692, this image of the devil became so frightfully enlarged that legal and ministerial authorities found it hard to define the limitations of Satan's spectral powers. Could a witch, while being corporeally present to some observers, yet venture outside his own person and, visible only to the afflicted in a “shape” or “spectre,” impose torments on another individual who might recognize and accuse the witch? Did the appearance of such a “spectre” afford a reasonable presumption that the person from whom it emanated was indeed a witch? Judge Stoughton insisted that the devil could appear in the shape of a guilty person but could not assume the shape of an innocent person. Thus it followed that to him anyone whose spectre appeared to the afflicted was presumed guilty of being in league with Satan.13 On this point there was great dispute. Even Mather's attempt in Wonders to settle the issue was equivocal.14 In Lawson's sermon, delivered before Wonders was compiled, the ex-minister of Salem Village avoided facing the problem directly, yet at the same time he justified the actions of the judges, who did condemn on merely spectral evidence. In addition, he presented in his Appendix many examples of spectral experiences as if they were history or fact15—the kinds of experiences which Hawthorne, as we have seen, may have borrowed for his story.

To corroborate the allegations of the afflicted, the magistrates sought physical evidence of spectral actions. In the testimony during the examinations of witches there is emphasis on visible marks imprinted on the sufferers; for example, the teeth marks of George Burroughs were said to have been found on the body of one of his victims. In the accounts of Lawson and Mather, one also finds concrete, physical objects cited as evidence of a spectral visitation. It is from this kind of experience that Hawthorne derived the artistic symbol of the pink ribbons.

As “an Eye and Ear Witness, of most of those Amazing things, so far as they came within the Notice of Humane Senses” (p. 93), Lawson records two anecdotes which help us to understand the appearance of the pink ribbons in “Young Goodman Brown.” Since the spectres of Salem obeyed the immutable laws of poltergeists the world over, they were often invisible themselves but contrived to leave tangible tokens of their immaterial presence. Lawson describes one such incident:

A iron Spindle of a woollen Wheel, being taken very strangely out of an House at Salem Village, was used by a Spectre, as an Instrument of Torture to a Sufferer, not being discernable to the Standers by; until it was by the said Sufferer snatched out of the Spectres Hand, and then it did immediately appear to the Persons present to be really the same iron Spindle.16

Certainly to persons already inclined to accept as fact the existence of a world of infernal spirits, this concrete evidence must have been extremely convincing!

Lawson's own amazement and credulity can be read even more plainly between the lines of an entry which he placed in the climactic portion of the first section of the Appendix:

A young Woman that was afflicted at a fearful rate, had a Spectre appeared to her, with a white Sheet wrapped about it, not visible to the Standers by, until this Sufferer (violently striving in her Fit) snatched at, took hold, and tore off a Corner of that Sheet; her Father being by her, endeavoured to lay hold upon it with her, that she might retain what she had gotten; but at the passing-away of the Spectre, he had such a violent Twitch of his Hand, as if it would have been torn off; immediately thereupon appeared in the Sufferers Hand, the Corner of a Sheet, a real Cloth, visible to the Spectators which (as it is said) remains still to be seen.17

Hawthorne's choice of the pink ribbon as the familiar physical evidence which leads to Brown's condemnation of Faith and his own wild plunge into the forest of doubt certainly could have been based on this incident of the sheet.18 Like all the details taken from Lawson and other sources, those involving the spindle and the sheet fuse the familiar tangible item with the bizarre, unfamiliar spectres. Just as the spindle and the sheet confirmed the reality of spectres for the credulous people of Salem, so Hawthorne employs the pink ribbon to support Brown's widening suspicions in the haunted forest created by his mind.

Like Brown's experiences of transport and Satanic baptism, which have counterparts in the records kept by Lawson, his vision of the ribbon on the branch of a tree in the Puritan forest relates to the problem of reality. Was the ribbon there? Did he seize it in his hand? Or did the waverings of his mind created by the ambiguous and fearful mingling of the familiar and unfamiliar lead him to imagine that the ribbon fell? In the context of all the witchcraft details cited thus far, the descent of the ribbon is perhaps the most important distortion of reality in Brown's mind.19

The ribbons, which are both real and spectral, and hence emphasize the psychological basis of the story, contribute a great deal to the structure of “Young Goodman Brown.” The tale consists of three parts. There is a frame: (1) departure from home and Faith, and (2) return to Faith and Salem Village. In the latter section of the frame the permanent results of the night away from home are concisely depicted. Not only are these parts relatively short and almost exactly equal, but they are the clearest sections of the story; that is, the details narrated and the effects summarized by Hawthorne are vivid and effective. Within this frame is the source of the changes in Brown observable by the end of the story: the forest journey, which is one of the longest temptation scenes Hawthorne ever wrote. This long sequence of temptation divides into two parts, each with smaller components. The first shows the erosions of Brown's trust in his forbears and in his respected contemporaries: his ancestors, plus Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the minister. Between this part and the next comes his loss of belief in Faith. The next section of temptation plunges Brown deeper into the forest in his progress to the witch meeting, where Faith seems to appear and where Brown's doubts envelop all humanity.

In the opening part, the ribbons, referred to three times, are identified with Faith. Brown's last glimpse of Faith emphasizes both the ribbons and a human response in her to his departure: “… he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons.”

In the long temptation sequence, where Hawthorne is concerned chiefly with Brown's consciousness, Faith never really appears clearly as a human being. However, the ribbon, the prime spectral evidence of her guilt, descends between the two parts of the Satanic temptations. In effect, Hawthorne builds up the distortions in Brown's mind so that the ribbon, so pointedly emphasized at first, can become spectral assurance for Brown. In the baptismal scene the ribbon does not appear, but a spectre of Faith is present, or so Brown believes. Since he has already accepted the falling ribbon as evidence of Faith's venture into witchcraft, it is not surprising that the appearance of her spectre completes the process of conviction in his credulous mind.

In the final portion of the tale the real ribbons, as depicted in the early half of the frame, return. However, the spectre of the ribbon and of Faith in the forest have contributed immeasurably to the new version of reality which Brown brings home with him. Although in the cases of the spindle and the sheet the victims of spectres were left with tangible evidence of the visitations, Brown does not hold the ribbon in his hand, even though he was supposed to have seized it. The ribbons are still in Faith's cap as she welcomes him on his return. This fact makes Brown's experience even more spectral than the cases cited by Lawson.

In this analysis of the structure, the ribbons emphasize the nature of Brown's psychological experience and at the same time provide important links in the construction of the story. The ribbons are a token of Hawthorne's ability to convert his source materials into literary art.


Without fully realizing the impact which his sermon might have on the congregation in Salem Village, Lawson in effect provided theological explanation for the spectral nature of witchcraft. Although this sermon of 1692 does not contain the kinds of vivid case histories in the Appendix, Hawthorne may have seen in it the essential allegorical and dramatic conflict between faith and Satan which is central to Brown's spectral delusions. In addition, he ironically deploys Lawson's theological position in the narrative and psychological structure of his story by balancing Lawson's emphasis on prayer against Brown's growing doubt, and Lawson's faith in sermons against Brown's reactions to them in the story.

In his address Lawson had to face crucial problems: why should a God-fearing community suddenly be enveloped by supernatural phenomena upsetting the family, community, and religious security of the people? And how can individuals noted for their godliness become agents or victims of Satan? Lawson's answer, supported by countless Biblical passages and by the arguments of covenant theology, places all the responsibility for witchcraft on Satan's malignity and powers of seduction. God, Lawson argues, is testing the faith of the village by granting Satan freedom to spread evil. Thus Satan is God's agent used to serve His own “most Holy Designs … by the Trying of his People and the Judicial Blinding, and hardening of Obstinate and Impenitent Sinners unto their Eternal Destruction” (p. 43).

Such an attempt to explain witchcraft phenomena on theological grounds led Lawson into the ironical position of emphasizing the dominion of Satan as much as the supreme power of God, if not more so. Like his contemporary clergymen, he thinks in black and white categories: Satan versus God or each member of the Trinity, Satan versus man, the accused versus the afflicted, breaking the covenant versus faith, the kingdom of darkness versus the kingdom of light. Yet at the same time he acknowledges Satan's power to blur the splendor of God and to impersonate an angel of light. In attributing all to the seduction of Satan, Lawson had to stress the frightful dangers of the Devil's cunning, and therefore at least one third of the sermon is devoted to this power. Even when Lawson turns to God, Satan is ever present as the opposing force in the struggle, and when in the last part of the sermon he offers advice to his former parishioners the image of a terrifying devil is kept vividly before them.

Early in his discourse Lawson comprehensively portrays the powers of Satan:

He is a Spirit, and hence strikes at the spiritual part the most Excellent (Constituent) part of man. Primarily disturbing, and interrupting the Animal and Vital Spirits, he maliciously Operates upon, the more Common Powers of the Soul, by strange and frightful Representations to the Fancy, or Imagination, and by violent Tortures of the body, often threatning to extinguish life; as hath been observ’d, in those that are afflicted amongst us. And not only so, but he vents his malice; in Diabolical Operations, on the more sublime and distinguishing faculties, of the Rational Soul, raising Mists of Darkness, and ignorance, in the Understanding … Stirring up, the innate Rebellion of the will, though he cannot force it unto sin. Introducing Universal Ataxy, and inordinancy, in the Passions, both Love and Hatred, the Cardinal or Radical affections, with all other that accompany or flow from them …

(pp. 18-19).

This discussion of Satan's powers as they operate in terms of the Puritan concept of man could have suggested to Hawthorne the process of emotional and spiritual disintegration stimulated in Brown's mind.

In a passage which may have been marked by Hawthorne, Lawson stresses the methods employed by Satan to undermine the “Rational Soul” and to stir up emotions:

… when he useth Mankind, he seemeth to bring in what he intends, in a way of Familiar Converse with us Mortals, that he may not be suspected at the bottom of all. Hence he Contracts and Indents with Witches and Wizzards … [and] he will use their Bodies and Minds, Shapes, and Representations, to Affright and Afflict others, at his pleasure, for the propagation of his Infernal Kingdom, and accomplishing his Devised Mischiefs, to the Souls, Bodies, and Lives of the Children of men; yea, of the Children of God too, so far as permitted and is possible.

(pp. 28-29).

In such operations Satan is adept at assuming the form of an angel of light “endeavouring to look so like the true Saints, and Ministers of Christ, that it were possible, he would deceive the very Elect … by his Subtilty” (p. 31). This power of Satan accounts for the grim uncertainties of spectral evidence.

Because of these powers and methods employed by Satan, Lawson is acutely aware of the potentialities for discord and distrust. In his Introduction he had stressed God's giving Satan freedom to range and “to introduce as Criminal” God-fearing people who may become “the Instruments of his [Satan's] malice, against their Friends and Neighbours.” In the sermon itself during a plea for humility, he emphasizes the conflict between the kingdoms of Satan and Christ and sees the people of Salem in the middle of the struggle. In the same passage (marked, perhaps, by Hawthorne) he describes the possibility of Satan's dividing Christ's kingdom “against itself, that being thereby weakened, he may the better take Opportunity to set up his own Accursed Powers and Dominions” (pp. 63-64).

Sensing such a danger, Lawson feels it his duty to warn the Salemites against spreading the blight and turning brother against brother by “giving way unto Sinful and unruly Passions, such as Envy, Malice, or Hatred of our Neighbours and Brethren. These Devil-like, corrupted Passions, are Contrary Unto, and do endanger the letting in Satan, and his Temptations …” (p. 71).

Despite such admonitions, however, Lawson, envisioning the “roaring Lyon Satan” as the great and all-but-omnipotent enemy, rallies his hearers to a supreme effort to defeat the Devil, a kind of New England crusade. In the most belligerent passage in the sermon even the printed words seem to shout: “I am this day Commanded to Call and Cry an Alarm unto you, Arm; Arm; Arm; handle your Arms, see that you are fixed and in a readiness, as Faithful Soldiers under the Captain of our Salvation, that by the Shield of Faith, Ye and We all may Resist the Fiery Darts of the Wicked” (p. 81). Here is the basic irony of Lawson's position: his vigorous urging of warfare against evil would encourage the very emotional responses which he warns against. In seeking the destruction of Satan, he sounds the war cry against the witches and hence stimulates further hate and distrust.

As counterbalance to Satan's malevolence, the positive forces offered by Lawson to support the people in their tribulations seem somewhat colorless and ineffective. The sources of faith, the church and God, are portrayed in rather conventional terms. The church he compares to a woman “shining with utmost brightness, of the Faith and Order of the Gospel” (p. 29). God is described as the real power—albeit the unleasher—behind the surge of witchcraft and the supreme party to the true convenant. The Christian virtues which Lawson would have the people of Salem Village embrace anew during these dark hours are those already familiar to them: fidelity to the covenant, self-examination under the eyes of God, and humility before Him. For the afflicted—but not for the accused—he urges “True Spiritual Sympathy,” the compassion central to Christianity. And above all there is the duty, and the inspiration, of prayer: “Again, Let us be Faithful in Prayer. The life of Prayer, lies in the Exercise of Faith therein. It is to the Prayer of Faith that the promise of Answer is made … Besides, it is said the Prayer of Faith, shall save the sick … Faith in Prayer engageth the Glorious Intercessor on our behalf … Faith in Christ Exercised in Prayer, is the token of God's Covenant, with his Elect under the Gospel …” (p. 83).

The godly or Christian side of Lawson's argument is well summed up in a passage which reminds us of Brown's desire to cling to Faith's skirts: “… we should take the faster hold of God by Faith, and cleave closer to him, that Satan may not, by any of his Devices or Operations, draw us from our steadfastness of Hope, and Dependance on the God of our Salvation” (p. 54).

In this way Lawson tried to balance the two “mighty opposites” of a perplexing theological problem. In his attempt to justify God's unleashing of Satan, Lawson may have had a neat theological argument, but his psychological insight was sadly deficient. What he did not realize was that his vivid depiction of the powers of Satan might outweigh his emphasis on faith and Christian virtues. Bound by his covenant theology, he did not realize that he could not call for restraint of distrust and hatred, while at the same time urging even greater militancy against those in league with Satan.

The fallacy inherent in Lawson's theological argument may have suggested to Hawthorne the allegorical and dramatic conflict—the clinging to Faith during the temptation of the devil-figures—which is so significant in the structure of “Young Goodman Brown,” especially in the long middle section. Instead of using theological or Biblical arguments, Hawthorne visualizes the opposing forces as human beings struggling within Brown's mind, and at the same time he allows them to assume a symbolical meaning which points up the dichotomy of Lawson's thesis.

On one side in Brown's vision is the fresh image of a youthful wife, Faith, to whose skirts Brown hopes to cling during a flight heavenward after the one compulsive experience in the dark wilderness. The pink ribbons, as we have seen, are the important structural device which identifies Faith early in the story, becomes the spectral evidence promoting Brown's doubt, and ultimately leads him to the delusion of condemning her. While this image of a youthful woman is very real, it also operates symbolically in terms of faith—of Brown's loss of faith.

The other side of Lawson's theological argument is conveyed in Brown's mind through the devil images in human form, both old and distrustful of man. In portraying the first, who resembles Brown's grandfather, Hawthorne skillfully endows the mortal shape with attributes of supernatural power: the old man's snakelike staff and his powers to summon the spectres of people familiar and dear to Brown. As a background for the New England minister who is the second devil figure, Hawthorne creates a surrealistic mélange of visions and sounds which reflect Brown's mind. In this latter setting, full of ocular deceptions, the devil image is quite direct and blunt in his condemnation of human nature. This directness, as compared to the deviousness and sophistry of the first devil figure, indicates the degree to which Brown's mind has disintegrated. Softened by the subtleties of the first devil and of spectral experiences, he is now ready to absorb the message from whose destructive impact he will never recover.

During the psychological and symbolical conflict the balance of power is on the side of Satan, not faith. Actually the wife Faith does not struggle with the images of Satan; it is Brown who is torn between visions of Faith and the seductions of the devil. The preponderant power of the devil is indicated in the structure of the story. Satan does not appear in the brief opening part, although the premonitions expressed there do prefigure the emotional conflicts to come. However, in the long middle section the devil conjured by Brown literally and figuratively consumes and distorts Brown's mind and emotions. The third part demonstrates the horrible effects of Satan's triumph over Brown and over Faith. No matter how desperately he had tried to cling to Faith's skirts, Brown is irrevocably pulled away from her, and he becomes a thrall of the devil.

In this, Brown's progress toward a hell of his own making, Hawthorne shows his understanding of the psychology of the witchcraft delusion. Versed in theology but not in human behavior, Lawson erected well-worn safeguards against the onslaught of Satan. To him the conflict between Faith and Satan was explained in theological terms; to him faith would be triumphant. On the other hand, Hawthorne saw the same conflict as a psychological struggle within Brown. In narrative form Hawthorne attempted to indicate how Lawson's emphasis on Satan's powers could have an effect on the Goodman Browns of Salem Village—and of the world—which would be exactly opposite to that intended. By giving concrete and human form to Fidelity and to Satan's Malignity warring in the mind of Brown, and by artistically recreating the psychology of spectral conflict, Hawthorne expressed his disapproval of Lawson's theological position.

The fallacy of Lawson's dogma enters the psychological and narrative structure of Hawthorne's story in another way: the ironic motif emphasizing Lawson's injunction to prayer and trust in heaven as a mainstay. In every division of the story there are references to prayer. At the beginning, Brown, attempting to quell Faith's fears about his sojourn and about her being alone, tells her to pray: “‘Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.’”

Such confidence in prayer, like his feeling that Faith is “‘a blessed angel on earth,’” becomes a part of the psychological struggle during the experience of transport. After the first devil-tempter tries to undermine his ancestors, Brown says, “‘We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness.’” When the shape of Goody Cloyse appears, she is described as mumbling indistinct words, “a prayer, doubtless.” Because of his prayerful gesture of looking up to heaven, Brown does not actually see the devil-figure give his staff to Goody Cloyse. Shortly after, when Brown thinks that he hears the voices of Deacon Gookin and the minister, their spectres are described as passing “through the forest, where no church had ever been gathered or solitary Christian prayed.” To counter the impact of this experience and the “heavy sickness of his heart,” Brown looks up to the sky again, but in the turmoil of doubt he wonders “whether there really was a heaven above him.” However, seeing the blue arch and the brightening stars, he says, “‘With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the Devil!’” But, as he lifts “his hands to pray,” a cloud covers the stars. In these references to prayer before the ribbon falls, the struggle in Brown's mind between faith and the seductions of the devil clearly echoes Lawson's ineffectual emphasis on prayer as a solution to the witchcraft problem of Salem Village.

When the spectral ribbon moves him to strong doubt, Brown comes to the witch meeting, where he finds people who, “Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward.” In the sermon which he now hears, the devil underscores the hypocrisy of the people present: “‘There … are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly.’” A few moments later, just before he emerges from the state of transport, Brown urges the spectre of Faith to “‘look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.’” This last reference to the saving force of heaven and prayer is ironical because Brown has already succumbed to the spectral temptations summoned by his own imagination. As soon as he returns to the village he demonstrates that he has adopted the devil's concepts of hypocritical piety and of the universal evil of man. In this way Hawthorne reverses Lawson's faith in prayer.

Hawthorne's distrust of Lawson's belief in prayer is clearly depicted in the final section. When Brown hears the holy words of Deacon Gookin's prayer through an open window, he asks, “‘What God doth the wizzard pray to?’” And when his own family kneels down “at prayer,” he scowls, mutters to himself, gazes sternly at Faith, and turns away. With such severity Hawthorne underlines the psychological damage done to Brown in the forest, as well as his new version of reality which no longer includes prayer, faith in covenant theology, faith in man, or even faith in God.

Just as Hawthorne makes ironic rejoinder to Lawson in regard to prayer, he also emphasizes the paradox of the theological argument by the placement of sermons or references to them in the structure of his story. Not until the first devil image begins to operate upon Brown does the sermon become prominent. To this “shape” of evil, Brown objects, “‘But were I to go on with thee, how should I meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem Village? Oh, his voice would make me tremble both Sabbath day and lecture day.’” This statement, ironically foreshadowing Brown's attitude toward the minister in the last section, is made after Brown loses faith in Goody Cloyse, who had taught him his catechism, and before the voices of Deacon Gookin and the minister are heard on the forest path. After he thinks that he has evidence of their fall, Brown's confused mind seems to hear a sermon delivered by a Satanic minister who is described as follows: “With reverence be it spoken, the figure bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New England churches.” In the witchcraft documents, including Lawson's Appendix, this divine can be literally identified as George Burroughs, who, among other misdeeds alleged, was said to have administered the sacraments at fiendish orgies. However, if this figure is identified with Lawson, or with any minister supporting his theology, then one may interpret the sermon in the wilderness—which is a naked, almost sensuous pronouncement of the supremacy of evil—as representing that aspect of Lawson's theology which magnified the powers and dominion of evil in order to arouse the faithful to destroy it. The net effect of Hawthorne's irony is to make Lawson the devil's spokesman who under the guise of fidelity to Christ is actually leading people to distrust and loss of faith.

This climactic sermon is balanced by another reference to a sermon. So profound is the spectral baptismal experience that Brown can no longer listen to the supposedly true word of his minister, whose voice formerly inspired his reverence. On his return to the village—the final structural frame—Brown is unable to accept the opposite side of Lawson's theological coin: the injunction to exercise positive Christian virtues. He shrinks from the gentle blessing of the old clergyman, and “When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers.”

Brown has heard two sermons, one during the forest scene which reflects his deluded vision and one after his return home. These parallel Lawson's theology (faith versus Satan's malignity), but instead of a divine victory, Hawthorne stresses Satan's triumph. Instead of having the faith he once had in his minister, in prayer, and in God, Brown has irrevocably converted himself to Satanic hatred and suspicion.


Whereas Adam and Eve may have experienced a felix culpa from which a regeneration of positive virtues might spring, Brown has suffered a complete fall from faith.20 Temptation has conquered him, not in a mythical Garden of Eden but in a spectral New England forest. Relying on materials from the American past, materials intimately connected with his own family, Hawthorne gave us a memorable portrayal of the psychological erosion of one Goodman Brown of Salem Village in 1692. In a dramatic and detailed temptation scene which artistically renders the states of Brown's mind, Hawthorne used Lawson's Christ's Fidelity and other sources for the names of actual people, details from recorded experiences, and the theological arguments current in that historic time. But his Brown is not just a Salemite or a completely destroyed Adam, because Hawthorne with his keen understanding of human nature realized that the inner struggle between faith and doubt transcends Salem Village. With the artist's genius for insight and technique, Hawthorne thus created a new and timeless drama about the distortions of the human mind.


  1. For a very able listing of seven “different” interpretations of the theme of the story, see D. M. McKeithan, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Interpretation,” MLN, LXVII (Feb. 1952), 93-96. (The reader can, I believe, easily note considerable overlapping, with differences more apparent in terminology than in substance.) To these should be added the following: Thomas E. Connolly, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism,” AL [American Literature], XXVIII (Nov. 1956), 370-375; Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., “The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown,” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly], XIX (Dec. 1958), 331-336; Paul W. Miller, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Cynicism or Meliorism?,” NCF[Nineteenth-Century Literature (formerly Nineteenth-Century Fiction)], XIV (Dec. 1959), 255-264; Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (Austin, Texas, 1957), pp. 76-80; Daniel G. Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York, 1961), pp. 149-168; and E. Arthur Robinson, “The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation,” AL, XXXV (May 1963), 218-225. Two other important works deal with the story: F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941), pp. 283-285; and R. H. Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark (Norman, Oklahoma, 1952), pp. 15-32.

  2. “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’,” AL, XXXIV (Nov. 1962), 344-352. For a dissenting view, see Paul J. Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness’,” AL, XXXVII (Jan. 1966), 410-419. It is partly my purpose to expand and reinforce Professor Levin's position, and to give some indication of the artistry with which Hawthorne shaped the original materials.

  3. Orians, “New England Witchcraft in Fiction,” AL, II (March 1930), 54-71; McDowell, “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Witches of Colonial Salem,” N&Q [Notes & Queries], CLXVI (March 3, 1934), 152. Goody Cloyse, Goody Cory, and Martha Carrier are the witches mentioned. Orians cites Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World as a source of the description of the witches' Sabbath.

  4. “Hawthorne's Literary Borrowings,” PMLA, LI (June 1936), 545-546, 552. Turner adds Goodman Brown and Deacon Gookin to the cast of characters drawn from history and identifies other details in the story—such as the experience of transport, the respectable nature of the participants in the perverted sacraments, and the allusion to child murder—as elements possibly drawn from Mather's Wonders. Both Orians (p. 65) and Turner describe as an almost exact quote from Wonders the auctorial comment in “Young Goodman Brown” that Martha Carrier had received the devil's promise that she would be queen of Hell.

  5. This volume, now in the collection of the Houghton Library, contains fulsome information on its title page: “Christ's Fidelity, the only Shield against Satan's Malignity. Asserted in a Sermon Deliver’d at Salem-Village the 24th of March, 1692. Being Lecture-day there, and a time of Publick Examination of some Suspected for Witchcraft. By Deodat Lawson, Minister of the Gospel. The Second Edition. Printed at Boston in New England, and Reprinted in London, by R. Tookey, for the Author … 1704.” Although there is no date of acquisition in the signed volume, the evidence presented in this essay indicates that Hawthorne had the book in his library or at least had read Christ's Fidelity before he wrote “Young Goodman Brown.” In fact, Hawthorne may be responsible for the markings in the volume. These appear on pp. 28-29, 62, 63-64, 69, 73, 93, 109, 112, 115. They consist of occasional underlining of words in Lawson's text; a few “X” marks; and lines drawn vertically in either the right or left margins. In some instances both margins have vertical lines, and the passages are boxed in by horizontal lines. On page 69, the word appropriate is written beside a boxed passage. The context deals with repentance, and the annotated passage tells of a condemned witch who speaks to the Reverend Mr. Simmes about the truth of his sermon which she had heard him deliver twenty-four years ago. The subject of the sermon was “Your sin will find you out …” This passage could have some relevance to The Scarlet Letter.

    I am indebted to the Houghton Library for permission to examine Hawthorne's copy of Lawson's book and to quote from it in connection with the present study. In addition, I should like to acknowledge my gratitude to Professor Norman Holmes Pearson, whose investigations into Hawthorne's personal library originally led me to the volume.

  6. Deodat Lawson had succeeded George Burroughs as minister of Salem Village and had served there from 1683 until 1688. His tenure was marred by factionalism and discord, chiefly about financial arrangements, with the result that early in 1687 a committee composed of Major Gedney, John Hathorne, William Brown, and the elders of the Salem church was appointed to arbitrate the troublesome matters. Although the committee report appears to have sustained Lawson's position and warned his parishioners against prejudice and animosity, his ministry evidently continued to be an uneasy one, for in May 1688 he removed to Boston, and shortly afterward the Salemites began negotiations with the Reverend Samuel Parris to settle among them. The record of Lawson's service in Salem Village has been published by the Danvers Historical Society in its Historical Collections, XIII (1925), 103-118; and XIV (1926), 66-75.

    It is not surprising that with such close links to the prominent figures involved in the witchcraft hysteria, Lawson, then minister of the Scituate church, should have been invited to return to Salem in March 1692 to deliver a lecture-day sermon. He was perhaps the more eager to appraise the local situation because it was alleged that his first wife and daughter, both of whom had died during his residence in Salem, had been murdered by a witch. During his visit from the 19th of March to the 5th of April, he carefully noted down all that he observed, and on his return to Boston he published his account in A Brief and True Narrative, which, identifying individuals by name or initials, became the first printed report on the witchcraft phenomena. This Narrative was included by Cotton Mather in his Wonders of the Invisible World, published in October 1692, and it has been reprinted by George L. Burr in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706 (New York, 1914), pp. 147-164.

  7. Preface to the Appendix, Christ's Fidelity, p. 94. This Appendix in the 1704 edition incorporates most of the material in the earlier Narrative, but it has been rearranged, the identifications have been dropped, and additional data have been added. This version has been reprinted as “Deodat Lawson's Narrative” at the conclusion of C. W. Upham, Salem Witchcraft (Boston, 1867), II, 525-537. All references in this essay are to the 1704 edition owned by Hawthorne.

  8. It is not my intention to displace Mather's Wonders as a possible source but to focus on an important volume which complements Mather's work. In footnotes I shall indicate parallels between Wonders and Christ's Fidelity.

  9. Lawson, p. 113. This testimony is also reported by Cotton Mather, who identifies the deponent as Joseph Ring. See Wonders of the Invisible World (Mount Vernon, New York, n. d.), p. 120.

  10. This passage follows the account of Joseph Ring: “The Afflicted Persons related that the Spectres of several Eminent Persons had been brought in amongst the rest, but as the Sufferers said the Devil could not hurt them in their Shapes, but two Witches seemed to take them by each hand, and lead them or force them to come in.” (pp. 113-114). I have found no parallel account in Mather.

  11. P. 111. See also pp. 117-118, where Lawson again discusses the administration of the sacrament. Cf. Wonders, pp. 107, 128, and 130. Lawson's accounts are frequently more vivid than those of Mather.

  12. P. 118. Cf. Wonders, p. 124. The Mather version is pallid.

  13. Stoughton's view, which is implicit in Lawson's narrative, inevitably caused an epidemic of suspicion in Salem Village. This phenomenon may be reflected in the direction which Brown's distrust takes throughout the story—moving from specific people who had previously been among the innocent in his mind, to all men.

  14. This issue has been covered by Perry Miller in The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Boston, 1961), pp. 191-208. He makes clear the fact that Mather's Wonders, written at the behest of Stoughton, was a stumbling apologia for the judges, an attempt to convince both Mather himself and the public that no defendant had been convicted solely on spectral evidence.

  15. Lawson's prefatory address to the 1704 edition indicates that this new printing was occasioned, at least in part, by a desire to justify the actions of the judges. It is distinctly defensive in tone: “… I have given way to the Publishing of them [these Amazing things]; that I may satisfy such as are not resolved to the Contrary; that there may be (and are) such Operations of the Powers of Darkness on the Bodies and Minds of Mankind; by Divine Permission; and that those who Sate Judges in those Cases, may by the serious Consideration, of the formidable Aspect and perplexed Circumstances, of that Afflictive Providence; be in some measure excused; or at least be less Censured, for passing Sentance on several Persons, as being the Instruments of Satan in those Diabolical Operations, when they were involved in such a Dark and Dismal Scene of Providence, in which Satan did seem to Spin a finer Thred of Spiritual Wickedness, than in the ordinary methods of Witchcraft; hence the Judges, desiring to bear due Testimony, against such Diabolical Practices, were inclined to admit the validity of such a sort of Evidence, as was not so clearly and directly demonstrable to Human Senses, as in other Cases is required, or else they could not discover the Mysteries of Witchcraft …” (p. 93).

    It is suggested by some authorities that Lawson himself came under some obloquy because of his association with the witchcraft proceedings, for he is referred to in contemporary records as “the unhappy Deodat Lawson,” and mention is made of his having returned to England in disgrace. See Burr, p. 150.

  16. Pp. 102-103. See Wonders, pp. 69, 131.

  17. Pp. 108-109. See Wonders, p. 132. On p. 69 of Wonders Mather also reports a suggestive detail not recorded by Lawson, an incident in which money stolen by “wicked Spectres” was later, before spectators, dropped out of the air into the hands of the sufferers.

  18. In the first three references and in the final one to the ribbons, Hawthorne uses the plural form. In the forest scene, however, he refers to a ribbon. This distinction between ribbons and ribbon suggests a part for the whole, just as the small piece of sheet in Lawson's account represents the entire sheet. In my discussion I shall follow Hawthorne's practice of alluding to the spectral ribbon in the singular.

  19. To complement the pink ribbon and the other details cited, we should refer to the passage which seems to represent Brown's loss of the feeling of transport: “He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.” The parallels are clear: the real rock versus that which had contained the spectral font; the real twig versus the one which, like everything else in the spectral vision, had seemed to be on fire. All quotations from “Young Goodman Brown” are in the Riverside Edition, ed. George P. Lathrop (Boston, 1883).

  20. For a fuller explanation of Brown's fall, see my essay “Paradise Lost and ‘Young Goodman Brown’,” E. I. Historical Collections, XCIV (July 1958), 282-296.

Further Reading

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Stanton, Robert J. “Secondary Studies on Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ 1845-1975: A Bibliography.” Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes 33, No. 1 (January 1976): 32-44, 52.

Comprehensive bibliography of criticism on the story from 1845 to 1975.


Apseloff, Stanford and Marilyn. “‘Young Goodman Brown’: The Goodman.” American Notes and Queries 21, No. 7 (March 1983): 103-06.

Quoting sources of Scottish folklore, assert that the word Goodman was used to refer to the Devil, which gives a dual meaning to Hawthorne's tale.

Capps, Jack L. “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Explicator 40, No. 3 (Spring 1982): 25.

Suggests that the third virtue of the Christian tryptich, charity—one not mentioned in the tale—is precisely what Brown is lacking to survive his experience with the Devil.

Christophersen, Bill. “‘Young Goodman Brown’ as Historical Allegory: A Lexical Link.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 202-04.

Discusses Hawthorne's ironic use of Exodus imagery in the tale.

Dickson, Wayne. “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Explicator 29, No. 5 (January 1971): item 44.

Finds a reference to Corinthians in the tale, with the implication that Brown is lacking in charity.

Ensor, Allison. “‘Whispers of the Bad Angel’: A Scarlet Letter Passage as a Commentary on Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Studies in Short Fiction 7, No. 3 (Summer 1970): 467-69.

Refers to Chapter Five of The Scarlet Letter as a gloss on Hawthorne's attitude towards Brown in “Young Goodman Brown.”

Ferguson, Jr., J. M. “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Explicator 28, No. 4 (December 1969): item 32.

Asserts that Brown suffers from hubris, or pride, in “Young Goodman Brown.”

Gallagher, Edward J. “The Concluding Paragraph of ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Studies in Short Fiction 12, No. 1 (Winter 1975): 29-30.

Examines the last paragraph of “Young Goodman Brown,” finding that Hawthorne offers neither a happy end nor a final peace to Brown.

Hardt, John S. “Doubts in the American Garden: Three Cases of Paradisal Skepticism.” Studies in Short Fiction 25, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 249-59.

Explores “Young Goodman Brown” along with Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle,” and Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” in terms of each author's negative use of natural settings.

Kurata, Marilyn. “‘The Chimes’: Dickens's Recasting of ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” American Notes and Queries 22, No. 1 (September 1983): 10-12.

Discusses parallels between Hawthorne's tale and Charles Dickens's short story “The Chimes.”

Reynolds, Larry J. “Melville's Use of ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” American Transcendental Quarterly 31 (Summer 1976): 12-14.

Focuses on parallels between Hawthorne's tale and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Shear, Walter. “Cultural Fate and Social Freedom in Three American Short Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, No. 4 (Fall 1992): 543-49.

Compares “Young Goodman Brown,” Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle,” and Henry James's “The Jolly Corner,” finding many structural similarities and asserting that all three tales treat “an asocial self within the social self.”

Tepa, Barbara J. “Breakfast in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” American Notes and Queries 16, No. 8 (April 1978): 120-21.

Suggests that the mention of breakfast in the tale contributes to its ambiguity since it leads to the conclusion that a communion has already taken place in the forest.

Wright, Elizabeth. “The New Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism: A Reading of Hawthorne and Melville.” Poetics Today 3, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 89-105.

Uses Lacanian and Derridean literary theory to discuss patterns that undermine “the stable meaning” in “Young Goodman Brown” and Herman Melville's “Benito Cereno.”

Zanger, Jules. “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and ‘A White Heron’: Correspondences and Illuminations.” Papers on Language and Literature 26, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 346-57.

Asserts that “Young Goodman Brown” and Sarah Orne Jewett's “A White Heron” comment thematically on each other.

Additional coverage Hawthorne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 18; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1640–1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 74, and 223; DISCovering Authors, Vol. 3; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most Studied Authors, and Novelists; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 3, 29, and 39; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; and Yesterday’s Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.

Taylor Stoehr (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Hawthorne's Theory of Mimesis,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 4, March, 1969, pp. 393-412.

[In the following essay, Stoehr examines “Young Goodman Brown” in light of Hawthorne's ideas on the relationship between spiritual and natural truth, and the dangers implicit in confusing the two.]

The tellers of tales—in America, writers like Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and later Mark Twain—construct their fictions around some single and striking figure of speech, at once abstract and concrete, an idea embodied in an action, object, circumstance, or the like, so that it becomes, as it were, a trope of life. The tale's main “effect”—to use Poe's term for it—reduces again and again to some bizarre image: a house collapsing with the death of its owner, a woman dying with the removal of her birthmark, a stutterer whose speech is act, a package of limburger cheese mistaken for the putrescence of a corpse, a chandelier of human torches, a “Pygmalion” figurehead for a ship, a “writer” who would “prefer not,” a burglar-alarm system with a will of its own. This is in contrast with authors like James, who write a different genre, the short story, and who are concerned with character, situation, life or a slice of it. The teller of the tale carefully leads up to or surrounds his central conception with a series of events which may sometimes look like a realistic plot, but which differ in that they comprise something like a closed system, the elements interconnected and interdefined (like a perfectly logical language), and all organized by the dominant image. If there is often a good deal of ornament along the way, it is neither naturalistic nor gratuitous. Detail is not offered for its own sake, nor in the interests of verisimilitude, but is part and parcel of the “effect.” Generally in Poe and Twain the end of the tale is the final clicking into place of the essential cog, for the sake of which everything else exists—the revelation of the secret, the discovery of the truth, the magic word, the punch line, the gimmick or nub or snapper. In Hawthorne and Melville it is the reader's job to discover the key; then, as in the analysis of dreams, the fantastic filigree of secondary elaboration collapses to a single symbolic image, the dream-thought or hidden content.

Clearly this is not realism, nor is the purpose of these writers to hold the mirror up to nature. And yet it would not be fair to say that their tales have nothing to do with life or reality or truth. What sort of an imagination is it, and what sort of a vision of the world does it imply, when an author is continually blowing up fictional balloons only to pop them or to invite the reader to reduce them to a neat little bang?

The comparison to dreams may be helpful at this point, for these writers used the analogy themselves. Poe addressed himself “to the dreamers and those who put their faith in dreams as in the only realities.” Hawthorne said he chose Brook Farm as the scene of The Blithedale Romance because, “being certainly the most romantic episode of his own life,—essentially a day-dream and yet a fact,” it thus offered “an available foothold between fiction and reality,” and Melville approvingly described his reading of Mosses from an Old Manse as being spun “round about in a web of dreams.” Twain too finally came to rest on similar insubstantial ground, for example in The Mysterious Stranger, where Satan pronounces the final truth toward which everything in that gloomy story (and much in Twain's development as an author) has been heading: “Life itself is only a vision, a dream. … Nothing exists save empty space—and you! … And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence; I am but a dream—your dream, creature of your imagination.” We are reminded of Ishmael on the mast-head, White-Jacket in the water, or Pierre, who did not see “that all the great books in the world are but the mutilated shadowings-forth of invisible and eternally unembodied images in the soul; so that they are but the mirrors, distortedly reflecting to us our own things.”

Already we will be noting differences in the views of our authors, but we may begin in general by saying of them that the solipsistic bent is in none of them a genuinely philosophical attitude. It is instead a particular artistic stance, in its most extreme version a promotion of fiction to a rank of reality above life, and a conception of experience as predominantly verbal, or at least gaining its significance from expression in language rather than from acting-out in life. It is not so much that these writers can believe in nothing but the reality of their own fantasies—though Poe often pretends to such a view and Twain bitterly toys with it at the end of his career—but rather that the sense that they are able to make of the world automatically frames itself in fantasy, and that this is by virtue of some very specialized uses of language to render experience. It should be emphasized that “dreams, visions, fiction,” a triad of equivalencies found in The Mysterious Stranger, are terms closely related, if not synonymous, in all four writers; accordingly the correspondences of dream and reality are to a great extent problems of verbal imagination, referential language, and literary mimesis. “To dream” is to use language about life and the world in special ways.

In brief, these special uses of language may be stated as follows: for Poe, a kind of word-magic built chiefly on metonymies, in which words are treated as if they were naturally or supernaturally rather than conventionally and arbitrarily attached to their referents; for Hawthorne, a heavily metaphorical style, in which whatever is described seems always on the verge of turning into its metaphorical description, and in which one often cannot tell the difference between the imaginary and the real; for Melville, a similar ambiguity, based on irony rather than metaphor, words turned against themselves, until reference disappears at the other end of Poe's blind alley; for Twain, a hyperbolic use of language, in which most expressions turn out to be heightened and distorted inventions, exaggerations, even lies, about the ordinary world.

The center or kernel of Poe's tales is frequently a visual pun taken literally and in deadly earnest—as Hop-frog puts the torch to the human chandelier, or Dupin finds “The Purloined Letter” in plain sight on the thief's letter rack. In Hawthorne some metaphor, such as “Life figures itself to me as a festal or funeral procession” (“The Procession of Life”), is allowed to flower into or to cap with one all-encompassing emblem a series of similar images. Melville focuses on bits of human speech—or the lack of it, in “Billy Budd”—and reiterates until all meanings have been canvassed, and none are left. Twain in his turn tells the tall tale, built on a succession of whoppers, and reserving some monstrously inflated absurdity to ring down the curtain.

Poe and Twain typically end their tales with a sort of explosion—it is the dreaded revelation in Poe, when, as in “Morella,” the name calls the thing named into being, and the narrator's consciousness goes blank in horror (this blankness or blotting out is the familiar abyss or maelstrom in Poe—“the end”); in Twain, it is the deflation of the hyperbolic balloon, when the last great puff of hot air from the narrator, who has gone too far this time, leaves the audience collapsing with laughter. In both cases, the end of the fictional structure is likely to come with a sudden neatness; the last words fall into place and, with a shock, we are back in our own reality again, where we become aware that we are holding our breath, or our sides.

Some of Hawthorne's tales go this way also, emphasizing the literal boundaries of fiction, the beginning and the end. More often, however, and especially in his best pieces, Hawthorne (like Melville) puts the confrontation between the imaginary and the real directly into his plots, as the focus of interest rather than as the means to an effect. One might even say—and this will be a large part of our concern in what follows—that a tale like “Young Goodman Brown” is about the relations of fiction and reality, a study of the true-to-life, a sketch for a theory of mimesis.

The structure of events in Hawthorne's tales is not linearly, that is to say temporally, conceived as in Poe's, where disaster awaits at the end, but rather cyclically or spatially, as befits thematic rather than anecdotal organization; and of course the built-in predispositions of emblematic art lend themselves to such a method. Hawthorne's tales sometimes have plots, but when they do they are mere pretexts for the configurations which he wants to present. Most of his tales exist for the sake of a single scene or image, and the reverberations he can make it echo with. One thinks of “The Minister's Black Veil,” “The Bosom Serpent,” “The Wedding Knell,” “The Birthmark,” and so on. In some cases, as for example the processional “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the crucial image is reserved for the climax, but more usually it is present from the beginning, an emblem which Hawthorne can constantly refer to as a source of moral comment and fanciful speculation. The emblematic moment recurs again and again in different guises and contexts. Very often it builds to some physical confrontation of the characters, standing in different moral planes, for example the deathbed scene in “The Minister's Black Veil” or the final coming-true of the prediction of “The Prophetic Pictures.” This is the methodology of Hawthorne's novels as well, which are rather like collections of tales strung together as series of tableaux showing the characters in a variety of physical and moral postures vis à vis one another. One almost wants to say that nothing else happens in the novels; all the action takes place behind the scenes and in the wings.

The central images on which Hawthorne bases his tales are easy to isolate and study; many of them are precisely formulated in the American Notebooks, for example:

A man to swallow a small snake—and it to be a symbol of cherished sin.

(“The Bosom Serpent”)

The semblance of a human face to be found on the side of a mountain, or in the fracture of a small stone, by a lusus naturae. The face is an object of curiosity for years or centuries, and by and by a boy is born, whose features gradually assume the aspect of that portrait. At some critical juncture, the resemblance is found to be perfect. A prophecy may be connected.

(“The Great Stone Face”)

To make one's own reflection in a mirror the subject of a story.

(“Monsieur du Miroir”)

… An essay on the misery of being always under a mask. A veil may be needful, but never a mask.

(“The Minister's Black Veil”)

Here as in Poe we see a fondness for the bizarre or grotesque image, but unlike Poe, Hawthorne usually conceives his emblem as having a moral, as embodying some truth, and in the actual working out of the tale he invariably directs it to some meaning for ordinary life. One need only compare the morals pointed at the ends of “Drowne's Wooden Image” or “The Prophetic Pictures” or “Edward Randolph's Portrait” with the more simply fantastic treatment of the same sort of idea in Poe's “The Oval Portrait” to see the difference in intention—all the more strongly highlighted in this case by a similarity in both design and effect. Pursuing the comparison a bit further, it is surprising to discover the number of entries in Hawthorne's American Notebooks which suggest or actually parallel tales developed by Poe. Had he had access to them, there are several entries that would have made Poe hesitate, in his review of Twice-told Tales, before accusing Hawthorne of transcendentalist symbol-hunting and (what is more ironic) unconscious plagiarism. Here are some examples which show how far toward the purely fantastic Hawthorne might have gone, had he not been committed to the “metaphor run-mad,” as Poe called his rival's technique:

To make literal pictures of figurative expressions;—for instance, he burst into tears—a man suddenly turned into a shower of briny drops. An explosion of laughter—a man blowing up, and his fragments flying about on all sides. He cast his eyes upon the ground—a man standing eyeless, with his eyes on the ground, staring up at him in wonderment &c &c &c.

(Cf. Poe's “A Predicament”)

Questions as to unsettled points of History, and Mysteries of Nature, to be asked of a mesmerized person.

(Cf. Poe's “Mesmeric Revelation”)

The strange incident in the court of Charles IX (sic, for VI), of France: he and five other maskers being attired in coats of linen covered with pitch and bestuck with flax to represent hairy savages. They entered the hall dancing, the five being fastened together, and the king in front. By accident the five were set on fire with a torch. Two were burned to death on the spot, two afterwards died, one fled to the buttery, and jumped into a vessel of water. It might be represented as the fate of a squad of dissolute men.

(Cf. Poe's “Hop-Frog”; Hawthorne had this idea from Froissart's Chronicles in 1838 and Poe probably from a secondary source when he later developed the anecdote.)

There are dozens more of these grotesque ideas recorded in the American Notebooks, the majority of which never found their way into Hawthorne's tales. Of those that finally did grow to full treatment, most of them have a moral already pointed in the first conception, and if they do not originally have moral significance, are given it in their fictional elaborations. This, of course, was what Poe found offensive and “transcendental” in Hawthorne. Probably he would have been all the more vexed to find that the image or emblem ordinarily occurred first to Hawthorne, and was then pressed for some symbolic meaning or significance. Often one sees him groping unsuccessfully for a meaning in the notebooks—“A person to catch fire-flies, and try to kindle his household fire with them. It would be symbolical of something”—and it was precisely this difficulty of finding a meaning adequate to his symbols that, in his last years, proved Hawthorne's stumbling block (see Davidson's editions of Dr. Grimshawe's Secret and the other unfinished manuscripts). The central struggle of his art is to maintain a tension between the terms of his symbols, to enliven dead metaphors, to force his daydreams into a certain relation with everyday life without giving up their essential strangeness. Hawthorne's typical stance may further be distinguished from Poe's in that the narrative point of view of a moral tale is outside the tale itself, whereas in the tale of pure fantasy the teller is not only part of the tale, but, in Poe at any rate, peculiarly identical with it. The usual Poe narrators—men like the morbid husband of Ligeia—become the characters in Hawthorne—like Ethan Brand or Young Goodman Brown or Rev. Hooper. (Rappaccini and Hawthorne's other evil scientists are like Poe's Dupin, or like Poe the poet-critic of “The Philosophy of Composition”; and it is interesting that the ratiocinative figure in Poe is rarely the narrator unless Poe is speaking in his own voice—the women are generally the abstruse and metaphysical ones.) Hawthorne maintains a certain essayistic distance from his characters and their stories. He presents his tales as purported translations, parts of an unpublished book, stories told him by others, imagined historical events, and so forth, and his prose is full of little reminders of the narrator's essential uninvolvement: “It only remains to say …,” “the historian of the sect affirms …,” “at that moment, if report be trust-worthy. …”

Hawthorne's narrative stance is different from Poe's because Hawthorne wants to bridge the gap between imagination and reality while Poe prefers to fall in. The former's emblems are of something, have bearing on life, while the latter's are grotesque climaxes marking the boundary-line of fantasy and its sharp division from the ordinary world, which, so far as his tales are concerned, might as well not exist. In Poe there is no distinction between the expressions of language and what those expressions express. All reality but that of language is denied, and Poe is like his character in “The Power of Words” who speaks the stars into existence. Whereas Hawthorne does not deny extra-linguistic reality, he does assign it a peculiar status in his view of things. He does not believe “in dreams as the only realities,” as Poe does, but he says—or allows his narrator in Blithedale to say—that their “airiest fragments impalpable as they may be, will possess a value that lurks not in the most ponderous realities of any practicable scheme.” The contrast between dream and reality is what interests Hawthorne. The world, he writes in “The Old Manse,” is “tormented by visions that seem real to it now, but would assume their true aspect and character were all things once set right by an interval of sound repose.” His advice to the world, to “take an age-long nap,” is fancy carried to Hawthorne's most annoying extreme of whimsy, but serious analyses of the relations between dream and reality occur in tale after tale. In these, Hawthorne sometimes trusts the dream, sometimes the reality, sometimes cannot decide between them. Perhaps he is more often found on the side of the dreamer than that of the realist—Clifford rather than Judge Pyncheon, Owen Warland rather than Robert Danforth, Violet and Peony rather than their father—and moreover, the whole evidence of his choice of subject matter and method—the preponderance of tales over essays, fables over sketches—attests his nearness to Poe's stance as a pure fantast. But while Poe wants to blot out reality and allow fantasy to fill the consciousness, Hawthorne is more interested in exploring the relations between the two.


Probably the most interesting of Hawthorne's tales, seen in this light, is “Young Goodman Brown.” The core of the plot is a pun—not taken with perverse literalness as it would be in Poe, but preserved as a pun and pressed to its full ambiguity in the course of the tale. Young Goodman Brown, an ordinary young and good man, has a sweet and doting wife whose name is Faith. By the end of the narrative, Brown has grown old, is no longer good in any ordinary way, and has lost his Faith, that is, his religious faith, his faith in his fellowmen, his faith in his wife. The story opens with Brown taking leave of his wife for an overnight trip. She begs him to remain, says she fears that bad dreams will visit her in his absence, but he tells her to say her prayers and no harm will come to her. He himself, as it turns out, is off to a Witches' Sabbath, a gathering of the devil's own in the forest, where tonight several converts are to be admitted to the communion. On his way he meets the devil, who looks very like Brown's own father. Disconcerted by his companion and his “serpent” staff, Brown hesitates, finally refuses to go on to the meeting, even though he has meanwhile discovered that he is to be in the company of all the most valued of his religious guides and counselors—Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and even the village pastor himself. Apparently everyone he respects is a hypocrite, actually a partaker of the devil's sacrament. Still reluctant, he is next astonished to hear what seems to be the voice of his own wife as she prepares to join with Satan's revellers in the distant clearing, and, as a token of her apparent defection, a pink ribbon which she wore “fluttered lightly down through the air.”

“My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupified moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.”

Brown now proceeds to the clearing where the whole town appears to be gathered, including his wife. Even yet there seems to be one more chance for Brown and his Faith. They approach Satan's altar where they are to pledge themselves to him. Satan welcomes them:

“Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

At the last moment Brown calls out to his Faith: “‘look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.’” Immediately his surroundings change, take on their ordinary appearance, and he is alone. Apparently he is saved. He does not know whether his wife has saved herself too or not. Indeed, it seems equally possible that he has merely “fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting.” Yet, dream or no, the experience produces a profound change in Brown. Although his wife greets him with unsuspecting joy the next morning, his faith is gone. He now mistrusts all men, his life becomes a succession of suspicions and secret judgments, and “his dying hour was gloom.”

Even this bare outline of the tale presents us with some interesting puzzles. If, as seems apparent, Brown does look up to heaven at the last moment, with the consequence that the whole evil scene disappears and he is left alone in the woods, is not this circumstance an indication that he has preserved his faith after all, by refusing the devil's communion? How then are we to explain his later behavior? Alternatively perhaps we are to take the whole episode as a dream. Hawthorne has a plan in the American Notebooks for a tale to be composed like a dream:

To write a dream, which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its strange transformations, which are all taken as a matter of course, its eccentricities and aimlessness—with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing ever has been written.

But if “Young Goodman Brown” is an outgrowth of this idea, it has surely changed considerably. Among other things we are missing the “eccentricities and aimlessness,” although we have the “matter of course.” Further, “Young Goodman Brown,” if it has a dream in it, must also have a reality, and there are no very clear boundaries marking the one off from the other. Where does it begin? And what does it mean?

If we do take Brown's experience as a dream, we must then regard his loss of his faith, both wife and virtue, as a kind of wish—at least we may say that he imagines the loss, and thus far chooses it. He similarly imagines the worst of all mankind, and by so imagining these horrors, he wakes into the condition of believing them. If the reader has trouble distinguishing the boundary between dream and reality here, all the more is Brown unable to discern it, for his dream becomes his waking life—what he imagines comes true for him.

The ambiguity of Brown's experience, both chosen and forced upon him, imaginary and real, is worth dwelling on, for it is at the center of the problem of faith as Hawthorne conceives it. So far as we know, Brown himself never questions the reality of his adventure in the woods. And, if we suppose with him that it all really happened, I think we have to admit that Brown has good reason for his loss of faith—at least in his fellowman—since everyone except himself seems to be in the devil's service. Supposing, however, that it was only a dream, then we must judge Brown harshly, as having chosen his loss, just as Ethan Brand seems to choose his fate in that tale. But Hawthorne seems to leave the question in the air; he will not say for sure, nor give us any certain evidence, that Brown's experience was either dream or reality. Nor is it somewhere in-between the two (whatever that could mean); in a way it is both. To make this clear, we must return again to the text.

The language of Hawthorne's tales is particularly abundant with expressions of apparent circumstance: “as if,” “as though,” “it appeared that,” “it seemed that,” “it might have been,” “it must have been,” “doubtless,” “perhaps,” “were such a thing possible,” “he fancied that,” “as it were,” “some affirm that,” and so forth. There are at least thirty such expressions in this tale, not counting subtler versions. Going hand in hand with these is the vocabulary of surfaces—faces, facades, visages, countenances, aspects, images, tokens, types, symbols, and the like—all quite appropriate to the presentation of fantasy and dream-vision. In most writers we expect such expressions to signal statements and descriptions which we are not to take literally but rather metaphorically. Moreover, in a case like Hawthorne's, where the tales are so thoroughly permeated with “as if” and “as though” constructions, we are tempted to take the whole as allegorical, a highly organized saying of one thing to mean another. In Hawthorne, however, this is not quite the effect. His emblematic technique is less allegorical than “hypothetical,” less a matter of systematically reading other meanings into the literal statement than a matter of withholding judgment on all apparent meanings, which are nonetheless offered as possibilities.

In proposing the term “hypothetical” to characterize Hawthorne's method, I wish to emphasize that it must be taken here in the loosest sense. Hawthorne does not present a hypothesis which he expects in any way to be verified or verifiable, as, for example, a writer of utopian fiction like Bellamy or a Chicago realist like Henry Blake Fuller might. In most of Hawthorne's tales—certainly in “Young Goodman Brown”—the statements put forth are not to be regarded as either true or false, or even possibly so, except in the broadest meaning of “truth-to-life.” We are not to imagine that what happened to Goodman Brown really happened to someone, or will, although much of the account Hawthorne gives could stand just as it is, had there been such a person with such a history. Nor are we asked to “suspend our disbelief” in reading the tale—not at least in any strict sense of that expression. In reading Hawthorne, as a matter of fact, we are constantly to bear in mind that it is only a fiction we are engrossed in. We take the story as neither true nor false, not by agreeing to leave such questions in abeyance, but by recognizing (and in Hawthorne, even concentrating on) the fact that such questions do not apply in the ordinary way. As with certain other kinds of imaginative accounts—for instance daydreams or jokes—we are required to put an “as if” construction on everything, to begin the experience with a silent “Supposing that …” which determines our attitude toward what we read. Again as in daydreams, jokes, and so forth, it is obvious that our attitude of “supposing” is quite different from an attitude of “believing” or even “pretending to believe.” Imagine believing or pretending to believe in “Young Goodman Brown”! This does not mean that we do not take such fiction seriously, for certainly we do; but only that our serious reaction to it is different from what it would be in the case of non-fiction. One does not write letters to the Times protesting the outrages committed in a tale (unless one happens to be a literary critic); one does not pass the hat for the relief of fictional orphans. Like as not, one takes thought rather than action.

Obviously there is much more to say about the logical implications and psychological effects of fiction as opposed to non-fiction. We have gone far enough, however, to see that “Young Goodman Brown,” with its insistence on its own “as-ifness,” is a rather special sort of tale, peculiarly about itself, about the nature of belief in imagined realities, and about the status of such realities. What happened to Young Goodman Brown in the woods is, first and foremost, a part of a fiction invented by Hawthorne. Brown of course cannot know this; that would be a twist for a modern novelist or playwright. Brown can know that his experience is in direct contradiction to his everyday sense of things, and that one or the other of them must be false—if they are to be regarded as matters of truth and falsity at all. This is just his difficulty. Logically, either Satan is right when he says, “ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind,” or else Brown had “fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting.” But how is Brown to decide which of the two accounts to trust? Remembering always that this is a logical question only if the accounts are true or false, let us go on to see what criteria or means of deciding are open to him. Perhaps he has some subtle moral sense, some faculty of intuition that could tell him. Hawthorne sometimes seemed to believe in such a faculty, as in this passage from the American Notebooks:

A person, while awake and in the business of life, to think highly of another, and place perfect confidence in him, but to be troubled with dreams in which this seeming friend appears to act the part of a most deadly enemy. Finally it is discovered that the dream-character is the true one. The explanation would be—the soul's instinctive perception.

Such an “explanation” might fit “Young Goodman Brown.” Assuming for the moment that it does, we should observe that it is not necessarily the apparent dream that is to be distrusted; distrust itself, to put it another way, is likely to lead to mistakes about reality:

Distrust to be thus exemplified [another entry in the Notebooks reads]: Various good and desirable things to be presented to a young man, and offered to his acceptance—as a friend, a wife, a fortune; but he to refuse them all, suspecting that it is merely a delusion. Yet all to be real, and he to be told so, when too late.

Back again with a character who needs “to be told” which is dream, which reality, we see Hawthorne here identifying the lack or loss of faith with a sort of suspicious pessimism—rather like that which Young Goodman Brown is said to arrive at as a consequence of his loss of faith. Perhaps instead it constitutes that loss.

Let us look at one more striking example of the sort of dilemma posed in these entries and in “Young Goodman Brown”—a situation in “Rappaccini's Daughter” that is so instructive an illustration of the problem that we must quote from it at some length. The hero, Giovanni, has fallen in love with the beautiful but deadly Beatrice. He has discovered that Beatrice is so imbued with the poisons of her father's garden that her very breath is fatal. At first unbelieving, he exclaims, “It is a dream … surely it is a dream,” but

he could not quite forget the bouquet that withered in her grasp, and the insect that perished amid the sunny air, by no ostensible agency save the fragrance of her breath. These incidents, however, dissolving in the pure light of her character, had no longer the efficacy of facts, but were acknowledged as mistaken fantasies, by whatever testimony of the senses they might appear to be substantiated. There is something truer and more real than what we can see with the eyes and touch with the finger. On such better evidence had Giovanni founded his confidence in Beatrice, though rather by the necessary force of her high attributes than by any deep and generous faith on his part. But now his spirit was incapable of sustaining itself at the height to which the earthly enthusiasm had exalted it; he fell down, grovelling among earthly doubts, and defiled therewith the pure whiteness of Beatrice's image.

As it turns out, so far as the reader can tell, Giovanni was quite right to be suspicious of Beatrice. Although he is certainly cruel to her, and although his attempt to achieve earthly happiness with her by administering powerful antidotes to the poison in her system is unquestionably fatal to her, yet surely he made no mistake about her potent infirmity. Yet Hawthorne says, “had Giovanni known how to estimate” Beatrice's virtues properly, they “would have assured him that all this ugly mystery was but an earthly illusion.” If we ask what difference that could have made, considering the realistic circumstances, the only answer that presents itself—and it is surely a curious one—is that Hawthorne could have invented some sort of loophole for his hero, if only his hero had had the “high faith” worthy of such a miracle. This may sound like the literary critic grasping at straws, but I believe that it is somehow Hawthorne's point—that after all, it is only a story, that the characters might have acted differently, the outcome might have been whatever they wanted, had they only realized it.

Both here and in “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne seems to throw the blame on his characters, while at the same time he gives them no possible means of saving themselves. He undermines his condemnation of them by telling their dreams as realistically as he does their actual experiences, so that even the reader can see little difference between the two. Were the author not on hand to put us right, by dropping an “as if” here and there, or, in “Rappaccini's Daughter,” by explicitly telling us what to think, would we know that Brown and Giovanni are to be condemned for their tragic losses—any more than Brown and Giovanni know it themselves? Hawthorne's technique puts us in nearly the same position as his characters, except that we are given some additional hints as to how we should come to terms with our dream, the tale we are reading.

For us it is a case of “supposing,” which we are to take seriously but not literally. We are to learn from it, as another of Hawthorne's notebook characters who never made it into fiction:

A person to look back on a long life ill-spent, and to picture forth a beautiful life which he would live if he could be permitted to begin his life over again. Finally to discover that he had only been dreaming of old age,—that he was really young, and could live such a life as he had pictured.

For this character, as for his readers, the typical Hawthorne illusion turns out well enough, but the Young Goodman Browns have no kindly author looking out for their interests, allowing them to “discover” that all is a dream. One feels that Hawthorne would have preferred to have all his tales come out so luckily for their characters. He worried over the unrelieved gloominess of The Scarlet Letter and wanted to include a few lighter pieces with it. Persuaded to separate publication by Fields, he followed it with an attempt at a book with more sunshine in it, The House of the Seven Gables, and if one reads through the complete works, the surprising thing is how many dreary cheerful things he did write—often for children. But at his best he invariably sees things at their worst. For a man who is always complaining about his characters' lack of faith, Hawthorne himself is singularly dubious about the possibilities of life and human nature. To quote the Notebooks one last time, he frequently seems to be in the following situation:

A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions; that the characters act otherwise than he thought; that unforeseen events occur; and a catastrophe comes which he strives in vain to avert. It might shadow forth his own fate,—he having made himself one of the personages.

One suspects that Hawthorne had his own experience in mind here. In any case, it is certainly related to the experience of Young Goodman Brown, whose dream turns into his reality merely by virtue of his belief in it. If Brown “strives” at all, it is certainly “in vain” to avert his catastrophe; ditto his creator.


Hawthorne's tales are attempts to find meanings adequate to the emblems of life with which he fills his notebooks. In this respect he may be said to be rather like his Concord neighbor Thoreau, taking the measure of worldly facts, reading them as signs, and worrying a transcendental meaning out of them. But even in The Seven Gables Hawthorne's beans come up with scarlet blossoms, and his pond is a Maule's well. Thoreau uses language to create a world in which his spirit can breathe, which is neither entirely factual, past, and dead, nor entirely fanciful and unattainable. To borrow the rather Thoreauvian pun with which Hawthorne concludes one of his tales, he tries to “look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and living once for all in eternity, … find the perfect future in the present.” But Hawthorne, like the protagonist of “The Birthmark” so enjoined, cannot live up to such advice, or, as almost seems to come to the same thing for him, his characters cannot live up to it. Looking into the hearts of his Giovannis and Young Goodman Browns, Hawthorne finds no warrant for the faith he seeks. His “supposings” for them regularly issue in disaster.

Hawthorne's tales do tell us that things need not be what they seem, that there is always another, better world possible to faith. But contrariwise, the means to this faith is itself through fiction and related activities of the imagination, dreams and visions. As he also says in “The Birthmark,” à propos of Aylmer's dream: “Truth often finds its way to the mind close muffled in robes of sleep, and then speaks with uncompromising directness of matters in regard to which we practise an unconscious self-deception during our waking moments.” This, especially in the context of Aylmer's experiment, is a gloomy version of something Emerson says in Nature, “that a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” Hawthorne's position is in some wise an Emersonian or Thoreauvian optimism, but without the grace to find his faith supported by the dreams which he and his characters are assailed by. Not that their dreams don’t come true, but that they turn out nightmares, like Aylmer's or Young Goodman Brown's.

While exploring the problem of faith through his characters, Hawthorne does not hesitate to probe the question of his own disappointment in them. He seems to recognize that if the fault is somehow in his characters, it is no less in himself, in his very decision to explore and experiment with their moral natures. Here we come at last to the perennial crux in Hawthorne, what in one way or another keeps him from being a transcendentalist—the unpardonable sin. Among the speeches of Satan to Brown and his wife, as they are welcomed to the communion, is the following:

“This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds. … By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bedchamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot. Far more than this. It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds.”

Despite his refusal to join the devil's communion, Brown comes out of his experience—be it dream or reality—with precisely the power here promised him. The knowledge of good and evil (mainly evil) which he thereby gains is a curse. In it consists his loss of faith—in all senses of the word—for he now sees the sin in his wife and in his fellowmen, and he believes that the world is the devil's. The exercise of this power of secret knowledge is what, in the Notebooks and later in “Ethan Brand,” Hawthorne calls the “Unpardonable Sin”—“a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity.”

Although Hawthorne uses the phrase “cold philosophical curiosity,” it should be noted that the unpardonable sin, breaking the “magnetic chain of humanity,” is not the exclusive propensity of the calculating scientists in Hawthorne; the artists too are liable to pry too deeply into the “mystery of sin” in others, with the result that they are as much responsible for that sin as the sinners themselves. So the painter of “The Prophetic Pictures” asks himself, “Was not his own the form in which that destiny had embodied itself, and he a chief agent of the coming evil which he had foreshadowed?” And yet, how can the painter help seeing what he sees, foretelling what his power of vision reveals?

The difference between Hawthorne's artists and his scientists is that while the former, men like the painter of “The Prophetic Pictures” or Holgrave in The House of the Seven Gables, have the ability to transcend the here and now through a kind of artistic clairvoyance, the latter, like Aylmer, Rappaccini, and Chillingworth, are meddlers with time and space, Dupin-like reasoners who, since they can never get beyond the alchemical confines of their methodology, end up destroying the subjects of their experiments. As Aylmer discovers in “The Birthmark,” “… our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results. She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make.” The artists are also tempted to act on their special knowledge of “the mystery of sin,” the “dark depths” of the human soul, but the best of them characteristically refuse to go so far, or, if they do allow themselves even the painter's mimetic act, they are by so much the less possessors of the “high faith” that is the ultimate value in Hawthorne.

What disturbs Hawthorne most, and in fact gives rise to his conception of the unpardonable sin, is that his artists, like his scientists, may after all be guilty of attempting to “make” reality, and consequently, by virtue of their insight into the recesses of the human heart and their power to portray what they see with Pygmalion-like verisimilitude, they may actually call into being what would otherwise lie dormant, may sacrilegiously “commit” the sins they “imagine” in others. Obviously this fear has special import for Hawthorne's own situation. As Melville said in his review of Mosses from an Old Manse, one cannot finish reading “Young Goodman Brown” “… without addressing the author in his own words—‘It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin.’” But this is a question for a more psychoanalytic reading of him than I am now attempting.

One might extract from Emerson a fuller view of language to help explain how Hawthorne gets out of his mimetic dilemma, in so far as he does get out.

Words [Emerson says] are signs of natural facts. The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history; the use of the outer creation, to give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation.

It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.

The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.

In like manner, the memorable words of history and the proverbs of nations consist usually of a natural fact, selected as a picture or parable of a moral truth.

By this account, truth-to-life is a necessary result of the proper use of language. The emblematic writer like Hawthorne cannot help but be in touch with reality. This is not a matter of mere factual or literal description; on the contrary, Emerson tells us we must “rise above the ground line of familiar facts,” to figurative language, images, and metaphors.

As the American Notebooks amply testify, Hawthorne believed with Emerson that “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” and that “The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.” It is only a little step further to a thorough reversal of the Realist's theory of mimesis; holding the mirror up to nature becomes, in Romantics like Hawthorne, not a means of seeing nature, but a means of seeing, reflexively, back into the seer himself, which is the point of the passage from Pierre cited at the beginning of this study. To quote Emerson again,

These are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there, but man is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects. He is placed in the centre of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him. And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man.

The ordinary Realist, a writer of short stories, wants to “reproduce” reality, or some aspect of it, in language. Words are thus conceived and valued as indicators of things, referring to the various “facts” of life and nature, and the writer is advised, for example by Henry James (though it was not exactly his practice), to take notes on his experience, the better to render it later in fiction. Ordinary Realism is premised on the view, whether tenable or not, that the writer can “match up” the things in his fiction to the things of life, through the agency of words, which act as neutral conductors, like the “half-tone dots” of a newspaper photograph. By contrast, in Hawthorne's mimesis with its dependence on emblematic language, what is “imitated” is not nature at all, but the supernatural—“moral law,” “spiritual fact,” “the beings and changes of the inward creation”—and these by means of natural emblems. In Emerson, this is one way of defining faith itself, “man's power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it.” “[P]icturesque language,” he says, “is at once a commanding certificate that he who employes it is a man in alliance with truth and God.” For him it is the essence of faith to find the natural world only a metaphor for the spiritual: he can act in this world enlivened by imagination; there is a universe for him. Belief, desire, and act are amalgamated, and one creates reality as one goes along: I make things happen, and thus prove my existence and the existence of what happens.

But for Hawthorne these “creative imitations” of the spirit are always accompanied by the admonition not to take them as reality, not to act upon them as upon evidence or fact. The products of the imagination, though they may comprise the highest truths of all, are only “supposed” truths, “as ifs” which crumble at the touch or disappear in the daylight, as Hawthorne coyly warned the reader of Twice-Told Tales. This is not regarded as a disadvantage so much as a safeguard, nor is he so sure of its invariable efficacy. As we have seen, his emblems carry a somber meaning, one which produces in him a nagging sense of guilt, as if he were to blame (and who else?) for the truths he divines. He keeps reminding us of the danger of taking the symbolic burden of an emblem literally, like Ahab in Moby-Dick, and thus destroying oneself in pursuit of an illusion—which for Melville too is tantamount to calling it magically into life. Less concerned with faith than with its loss, Hawthorne offers the following analysis: once we treat a spiritual truth as a natural truth, as something to act on, it immediately becomes a chimera breathing real fire; active belief is fatal to desire, and we are left with only half of faith, if not doubt then horror. His refuge was a theory of mimesis, or the rudiments of one: fictions, and their truths, are not matters of truth or falsity at all. For him, faith depends on remaining out of doubt, on maintaining the aesthetic distance.

Richard C. Carpenter (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: “Hawthorne's Polar Explorations: ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and ‘My Kinsman, Major Molineux,’” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 1, June, 1969, pp. 45-56.

[In the following essay, Carpenter considers “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” as companion pieces, with the first tale treating corruption brought on by isolation, and the second by society.]

The misadventures of Young Goodman Brown and Major Molineux's youthful cousin Robin have in recent years been as extensively interpreted as any of Hawthorne's shorter works. Since both tales are ambiguous and puzzling in the characteristic fashion of the best Hawthorne stories, it is not surprising that they have elicited attention from a variety of critical perspectives. Their imagery, symbols, cultural milieus, historical backgrounds, psychoanalytic implications, and mythic patterns have all been so thoroughly examined that we know as much about the individual tales as we can rightly expect from the application of the critical intelligence. Nevertheless, all this critical acumen and industry has allowed one curious lacuna to remain. Although alone among Hawthorne's tales these two are so closely parallel in form and manner as to be properly considered companion-pieces, there has been no investigation of this fact. Passing comments there are aplenty, but curiosity apparently has stopped there.

It may be that the close similarities in structures, characterization, theme, and imagery have been considered too apparent and obvious even to the casual reader, or it may be that these parallels have been assigned to coincidence. But the obvious in Hawthorne, as in James, is often only a surface which disguises, like Poe's purloined letter, matter of more than passing moment. The meaning of the scarlet letter and the golden bowl is quite obvious, but no serious reader would stop his consideration at the mere fact of adultery. Coincidence, on the other hand, while possible, is hardly likely. Whether or not Hawthorne was consciously aware (as I feel he must have been) of similarities in stories published only three years apart, his return to the same structure and themes more reasonably implies a proclivity of the artistic imagination than it does a happenstance. Painfully aware of the few thin strings on which he had to play, Hawthorne appears usually to have striven to make his works as different as he could. The parallels between “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” imply a powerful impulse to explore a basic problem more than once. One may charge the artist with a tendency to repeat himself—the greatest artists always do—but not with coincidence, because the artist is the victim not of chance but of obsession.

It would therefore appear reasonable to investigate the parallelism in these two tales and to determine the significant ways in which each diverges from the common foundation on which they both rest. Possibly these stories form a kind of test-case or laboratory experiment in which Hawthorne was able to try out his reagents in the same systematic way on what appeared to be distinct psychic substances, discovering in the process in what ways their elements were really the same. Or to shift an over-scientific metaphor to something closer to the creative process, perhaps by writing the same story as a twice-told tale, Hawthorne performed a kind of exploration of the boundaries of his moral universe—moving from the center to the verges and back again.


The first evidence of parallelism, reconstructing the exploration as best we can, is the plot, a series of events sufficiently alike to lend themselves to a single synopsis:

A youth, identified obscurely by a generic and symbolic name, sets out from the security of home and family on a journey which promises to bring him to a new way of life. Untested and naive, he sees this adventure as difficult yet filled with opportunity. He goes somewhat unwillingly, and thinks on occasion of the home he has left behind, but is persistent in his search. Early in his journey he meets an elderly gentleman whose emblem is a staff and who seems to know more about the youth than he knows himself. Darkness falls as he goes on; his way becomes confused; from various quarters he hears demoniac laughter; he is half-convinced that he is subject to hallucinations. People and objects appear and disappear in phantasmagoric fashion; he is confronted at a climactic point by a devilish apparition; he becomes increasingly excited as he nears his goal and bursts out in demoniacal laughter himself. Watching a profane rite, lurid against a surrounding darkness, he very nearly becomes a participant, but comes to his senses to find the vision dissipated and the natural order restored. He apparently has been profoundly affected by this experience; the remainder of his life will be completely altered by the events of this one night.

In these days of Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell, such a plot is inevitably seen as a type of quest, and commentators have not been remiss in pointing this out. What might nevertheless strike an attention not too jaded with mythic analysis is the fact that both these stories exemplify with unexampled clarity the typical quest-pattern, much less “attenuated” or “displaced,” as Mr. Frye would say, than is usual in fiction, and unique in Hawthorne's work, where the mere shadow of such a pattern is rare indeed. Nowhere else, so far as I can determine, did Hawthorne write even one story that can be so neatly assimilated to the main circumstances of the journey of the hero as Campbell has outlined it for us:

The mythological hero, setting forth from his hut or castle, voluntarily proceeds to the threshold of adventure where he encounters a shadow presence which guards the passage. He defeats or conciliates this power and goes into the kingdom of the dark. Beyond the threshold he journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him and some of which give magical aid. When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward, represented by his recognition by the father-creator. He returns to the world but the transcendental powers must remain behind.1

Not all of this fits precisely, of course. (It does not fit Campbell's examples precisely either.) But it does apply to several aspects of each story. Brown, for instance, meets the “shadow presence” in the form of his grandfather—really the devil taking on the form most suited to the occasion; he “conciliates,” or agrees with this “presence” that he will go into “the kingdom of the dark.”2 The forest through which he journeys is at once unfamiliar and seems related to himself, even a projection of his own spiritual state. He is both severely threatened and aided on his evil journey by the voices he hears from the cloud overhead and the discovery of Faith's pink ribbon, an ironic emblem, fluttering down from the sky and catching in the branches of a tree. His supreme ordeal is in the very depths of the forest, where he recognizes and is recognized by the Devil, who is in this situation his “father-creator,” for Brown is to become a demon like those he sees at the blasphemous rite—a child of Satan. He resists this fate at the crucial moment, in effect returning to the world, because the “transcendental powers” disappear. Yet Brown has been drawn into the orbit of evil by his experience, and he never recovers from it.

Robin, whose other name must be Molineux, although Hawthorne goes to some pains to conceal this fact from us,3 meets a kind of “shadow presence,” in the person of an elderly gentleman who represents the society of the town and who refuses to answer Robin's questions: he is a guardian of the town's secret. Robin neither conciliates nor defeats this guardian but is not deterred in his search. The forces which aid and threaten Robin are, on the other hand, more explicit than those Brown encounters: an innkeeper, a saucy wench, and the watchman all hinder his quest, while a friendly stranger, “a gentleman in his prime, of open, intelligent, cheerful, and altogether prepossessing countenance,” gives him help and advice. Robin is, in similar fashion to Brown, involved in “a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces,” because he is in the dark about the fate being prepared for his kinsman, so that he is continually bewildered and frustrated while the townspeople are all aware of his search and his problem. His crucial moment comes as he sees Major Molineux dragged in the cart, tarred and feathered. As the psychoanalytic critics point out, it is here that he encounters and recognizes the father-figure for whom he has been searching. He joins in the demoniac laughter of the crowd; the vision sweeps out of sight, leaving “a silent street behind”; and Robin, wondering if he has been dreaming, is encouraged by his mentor to stay in the town, to profit from his experience.

The basic structure of this quest-myth is supplemented by the machinery typical of such journeys. The setting in both tales is made preternatural and foreboding by a feeling of disorientation. It is plain enough that Brown, venturing ever deeper into the wilderness, should find his surroundings sinister and confusing. But the same is true for Robin, who is traversing the streets of a little provincial capital. His is an “evening of ambiguity and weariness” like Brown's, and the byways of Boston are nearly as labyrinthine as the depths of Brown's woods or the streets of the town through which K. makes his confused way in The Castle. In the fashion characteristic of quests, the hero must be drawn out of his accustomed track in order to become psychologically prepared for the totally new experience which awaits him.

A sense of the phantasmagoric accompanies the spatial dislocation felt by each hero. The Devil's staff, as Goodman Brown sees it, “bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.” Like the apparition of Goody Cloyse and the Devil himself, the appearance of the staff “must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Brown hears the minister and Deacon Gookin but can see nothing; disembodied accents are “talking … strangely in the empty air.” From overhead comes to his ears the “confused and doubtful sound of voices” out of a cloud which hurries “across the zenith” and hides the “brightening stars,” although there is no wind stirring. Yet “so indistinct [are] the sounds” that he doubts whether he hears “aught but the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind.”4 Throughout the rest of the tale, Hawthorne continues to emphasize this kind of ambiguity, as he similarly provides the reader with a sense of the unreal in Robin Molineux's surroundings. Robin's disoriented sense is that of sight instead of Brown's hallucinations of hearing; the effect of dream, even of nightmare, is much the same. “Strange things we travellers see” repeats Robin, observing without understanding their meaning the preparations for tarring and feathering his kinsman, the figures hurrying along the deserted streets, the man with two faces, “as if two individual devils, a fiend of fire and a fiend of darkness, had united themselves to form this infernal visage.” Almost falling asleep, he confuses his memories of home with this place where he now sits in weariness and frustration, and asks, most significantly, “Am I here, or there?” And when the horrid procession appears, Robin has become ready to respond to its dionysiac frenzy, in part at least because he has lost his common-sense perspective.

Both Brown and Robin have talismans: the staff which the Devil gives Brown and Robin's cudgel; they both undergo their adventures literally at night, as well as undergoing a “night-journey”; they observe and very nearly participate in what can only be called a rite, and that rite is in both cases lurid with fire against a predominant darkness; both youths come back to themselves with a start after the crisis, as if they had been in a trance or dreaming. In more than coincidental fashion Young Goodman Brown and Robin Molineux are much the same type of man involved in the same basic experience of the quest for knowledge of good and evil.


Quests, to be sure, though archetypally the same, take many different forms: Ahab, Peer Gynt, and Sir Galahad are classic heroes of quests, but the themes and tones of their stories are in each case radically different. Quests run the gamut from philosophical tragedy to satire to light-hearted comedy; indeed if we accept the suggestion of Northrop Frye, the quest-myth is the basic pattern of which romance, tragedy, irony, and comedy are “episodes,”5 and it should not surprise us to find elements of the quest in any work where we wish to seek it out. Nevertheless, the differences among works built on this fundamental pattern are also important and instructive.

With “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and “Young Goodman Brown” these differences—or perhaps modulations would be the better word—appear in the type of adventure on which the heroes are embarked, in the specific nature of the setting, and in the character of the hero himself and the characters whom he encounters. Goodman Brown's journey is into the wilderness while Robin's is into the city. There is a kind of parallelism here, as we have indicated, in the labyrinthine and disorienting nature of Robin's city. Yet it is a much more solid place than Brown's forest. The figures Brown sees are so insubstantial as to disappear in the wink of an eye; the voices he hears may be nothing but the product of his fevered imagination; the Satanic ritual and its communicants leave not a trace behind when Brown calls upon Faith to “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.” While both tales have a dreamlike quality, Robin's world is altogether more substantial than Brown's. Essentially Brown is living in solipsism, the projection of his own tortured doubt and loss of faith. His quest is into the depths of his soul, given symbolic realization in the figures he thinks he sees and hears in the wilderness, whereas Robin's is into society. Labyrinthine though the city is, distorted and portentous as it seems to be, the city does exist, with its taverns, barbershops, churches, and crowds of people walking its streets. While it is possible to think, as Hawthorne half-encourages us to do, that Brown really has dreamed all that has happened to him, it is much more difficult to think this with Robin. When Brown comes to himself nothing remains but “calm night and solitude,” the once burning twig “besprinkles” his cheek “with the coldest dew”; when Robin recovers, the town is still around him and the kindly stranger urges him to stay where he may rise in the world without the help of his kinsman.

Evil in “Young Goodman Brown” is concentrated in the Devil, who first appears in the guise of Brown's grandfather and then in his own dark shape as he presides over the Witches' Sabbath in the depths of the forest. Robin encounters him, however, or the evil of which he is the manifestation, in several characters: the hem-ing gentleman with his indifference and his threats; the girl with the scarlet petticoat and her sexual invitation; the sleepy watchman; the man with two faces, closest to the Devil in his role as a Lord of Misrule presiding over the ruin of Major Molineux. Each of these is evil in a special way; one critic has suggested that not only is the two-faced man symbolic of the Devil, but the other characters can be seen as assistant tempters: pride, lust, avarice (in the innkeeper), and sloth.6 Whether we consider them this way or not, they are clearly something quite different from the radically metaphysical, the unfocused essence of evil sought by Goodman Brown. Robin is exposed not to the singular evil of the human soul so much as to the multiple evils of a social cosmos.

The characters of Brown and of Robin are also distinct, even though neither is highly individualized. Brown is a young Puritan husband—that is all we know—but Robin is described as a rustic properly prepared for his encounter with the city, clad in durable garments, with “vigorous shoulders, curly hair, well-shaped features, and bright, cheerful eyes.” Of particular interest is the emblematic staff with which Brown is equipped, a really supernatural instrument fashioned by the Devil from a maple branch plucked by the wayside, contrasted to Robin's “heavy cudgel formed of an oak sapling, and retaining a part of the hardened root”—a serviceable weapon in his forest home but useless here in the city. Several times Robin wishes he could use the cudgel to get some satisfaction from his tormentors, but in these surroundings his heavy club has no value. What he needs is something like the long, polished cane which the hem-ing gentleman strikes down before himself at every step. For Brown, who is an archetypal Everyman, the Devil's staff is a magic instrument to help him on his way toward evil; for Robin cudgel and staff are means of contending, at this time unsuccessfully, but later with probable success, against a world where one must know the “right” things to do. Like a young Madison Avenue executive, Robin needs to find out the mores of the society into which he is moving. It is a corrupt world, but apparently at the end he has discovered how to come to terms with it.

Other modulations imply this same point: the symbol of femininity in “Young Goodman Brown” is a pink ribbon, whereas in Robin's story it is a scarlet petticoat belonging to a young harlot; laughter in Brown's forest is despairing, demoniac, whereas the laughter Robin hears is mocking, derisive, contemptuous; the assembly Brown sees in the forest has undergone a change in aspect because of their spiritual alteration, the mob Robin watches seems fiendish because of their costumes and actions; when Brown turns to religion for help he asks Faith to look to heaven, Robin sees the Bible illuminated by a single ray of moonlight, a symbol, so he conjectures, of nature worshipping in “the house that man had builded.” Brown's environment is not only the solitary forest, but the solitary spirit; Robin's is the world of men.


The reasons why Hawthorne wrote stories with so many similarities but provided them with such striking divergences must necessarily remain conjectural, yet I believe that although we cannot determine reasons some conclusions concerning results may be tentatively drawn. The first of these is that “Young Goodman Brown” differs from “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” in some of the ways that tragedy differs from comedy. Brown seems to suffer from a degree of hubris, despite his hesitancy about embarking on his journey; he acts from that peculiar combination of free will and predestination that often guides tragic protagonists; he suffers a kind of spiritual death tantamount to the physical death that overtakes most tragic heroes, although it might be noted that Oedipus, the prototypal tragic hero, suffers in much the same way in Oedipus Tyrannus.

Robin, on the other hand, has many of the characteristics of the stock comic figure of the country bumpkin, from his sturdy homemade clothes to his cudgel to his self-assurance.7 Naive and blundering, he prides himself on his “shrewdness,” which Hawthorne underlines with heavy irony by mentioning it again and again. He is both importunate and gullible: he tugs at the coat of the man with the cane and is threatened with the stocks for his rudeness; he thinks that the innkeeper's “superfluous civility” is due to a recognition of Robin's family resemblance to the Major; he allows himself to believe, or half-believe, that the pretty whore is the Major's housekeeper and almost falls into her toils. Despite his encounters with sinister people and frightening events, the best responses he can make are “Mercy me!” and “Strange things we travellers see!” In addition to Robin's character as bumpkin, the story itself observes some of the conventions of comedy: the youthful hero (or eiron) blocked in his search for fortune by absurd circumstances; the helpful confidant who assists the hero in his cause; the implication of his being rewarded with romance, or sex at least, as well as fortune, since the saucy eye and silvery laughter of the pretty wench are at his elbow in the climactic scene; an “assembly scene” at this climax where everyone Robin has encountered reappears; the expulsion of a scapegoat figure from the society, to the accompaniment of much raucous laughter.

Although it would be plainly a distortion to make these stories out to be a tragedy and a comedy respectively, it is clear that Hawthorne was using these orientations to create two different stories from what is basically a single plot and that consequently we see what appear to be two different possible outcomes to the same essential situation. Everyman may, by going deeper and deeper into the wilderness of the self, discover such evil there that he ever after must project it upon the world about him—Hawthorne's theme of the tragedy of moral isolation, the withdrawal “from the chain of human sympathies,” the soul seeing its sin in a hall of mirrors where the thronging terrors it perceives are only itself infinitely multiplied. Or Everyman may find himself in a society—a world of interrelated people—whom he has difficulty recognizing because of his concern with himself, until he eventually comes to a sudden revelation of his innocence, which appears absurd in these circumstances, and falls from that innocence into sophistication, an event so excruciatingly comic that he can do nothing but laugh in concert with those around him.

But although the outcomes are different, at the same time this pushing of the comic to the extreme leaves it but a hairsbreadth from tragedy so that two stories become in effect one. The tragic and comic constitute, in fact, a kind of cyclical process rather than actual antinomies; as in the universe of contemporary physics, if you go far enough in one direction, you will end up where you started. By using the archetype of the quest, Hawthorne takes us on alternate routes that turn out to have practically the same destination. In the one, man comes to grief through his own self-regard, his willful isolation; in the other he comes to grief—this time without quite realizing what is happening to him—by being absorbed into the ways of thought and feeling of a corrupt world, laughing with the mob at his previous innocence, and at the spectacle of his kinsman—the term is significant—shamed and tormented by an assemblage of demons: “On they went, like fiends that throng in mockery around some dead potentate, mighty no more, but majestic still in his agony. On they went, in counterfeited pomp, in senseless uproar, in frenzied merriment, trampling all on an old man's heart.”

Thus Hawthorne, exploring the limits of his moral universe, saw man's quest as the same, regardless of its specific form. None of his protagonists is more of an isolato than Brown; as cut off from humankind as are Ethan Brand and Roger Chillingworth, they still live in a web of human relationships. And no protagonist seems likely to rise in the social world in the way Robin indubitably will. Yet, ironically, they both are fallen. By telling us the same story and framing it so differently, Hawthorne has shown us, as in a paradigm, the themes with which he was to deal in most of his work. The ritualistic form of the quest serves him especially well in bringing his underlying idea to the fore. Probably the reason why he did not continue to provide his tales with such a clear-cut metaphor is that he intuitively (or artistically) recognized its limitations. In later work, and in other tales written about the same time as “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” he would turn the physical search into an intellectual or spiritual odyssey, keeping the theme but not the metaphor. Occasionally, as in “Roger Malvin's Burial” or “Ethan Brand,” a portion of the tale takes us on a quest, but the main drift is in the direction of a spiritual journey. Aylmer, Owen Warland, Giovanni Guasconti, Arthur Dimmesdale, Donatello—all are engaged in one or another kind of spiritual journey that may be taken to be the equivalent of Brown's and Robin's “actual” quests. But, with the exception of “The Celestial Railroad,” which is a special kind of satiric allegory, none of Hawthorne's other works so plainly employs the unadorned archetypal pattern of the journey from innocence into destructive knowledge.

Significantly enough, Hawthorne did not continue to find the journey into the corrupting world as imaginatively effective as that into spiritual isolation. The comic, while it appears more frequently in his work than one might think from reading some contemporary critics, is not Hawthorne's dominant mode. Even in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” it is ambiguous comedy with no joy in it and a sinister note at the climax. Probably The House of the Seven Gables has less ambiguous comedy than any other of his works, a generally sunnier attitude. But even in that novel—if it is a novel—the sinister influence of Maule's curse prevents us from feeling that all is fundamentally harmonious in this social world. Although I have claimed elsewhere that the ending of the novel, with its sudden flood of good fortune, is an integral part of the theme, the implication of the curse is still with us. Comedy is hardly Hawthorne's métier, even if he did try it on a number of occasions.

We may conclude, cautiously and with an awareness of the tenuity of our chain of reasoning, that the parallels of the stories we have been examining, together with the deviations from those parallels, were far from fortuitous in their end result, no matter what unknowable genesis they may have had. By establishing for Hawthorne the topographical frontiers of his moral territory, the polar explorations of these tales served his imagination well. If he had not undertaken such explorations, I venture to say that the assurance and artistry of his later works would certainly have been much different. In “Young Goodman Brown” he pursued the idea of isolation as far as was artistically feasible, as he followed the idea of corruption by society as far (for him) as was appropriate in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” He did not need to survey those limits again but could map the intervening territory in all its fascinating contours and complexities. As indeed, he did.


  1. The Hero With a Thousand Faces (New York, 1956), pp. 245-246. I have condensed Campbell's summary to some extent.

  2. Although Brown's trip has been previously planned and there probably has already been contact between him and the devil, the initial encounter nevertheless has for him the authentic shock of a threshold experience.

  3. Several reasons might be given for this secretiveness, among them the desire to preserve the social distance between the rustic Robin and his powerful (or once-powerful) kinsman, while at the same time preserving the blood relationship between them. The most probable explanation, to my way of thinking, is that Robin must be kept an Everyman despite his human and social relationships.

  4. Cf. Paul J. Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” American Literature, XXXVII (January, 1966), 410-419. His thesis is that the events all indicate Brown's hallucination, which he wills, rather than that they are ambiguously real or unreal events: “A more acceptable interpretation of the ambiguity of the story is to see in it Hawthorne's suggestion that the incredible incidents in the forest were the product of an ego-induced fantasy, the self-justification of a diseased mind. It seems clear that the incidents were not experienced: they were willed” (p. 419). I substantially agree with this position.

  5. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 215.

  6. Cf. Hyatt H. Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), p. 46n.

  7. Cf. Daniel Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York, 1961), pp. 113-125.

Reginald Cook (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “The Forest of Goodman Brown's Night: A Reading of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3, September, 1970, pp. 473-81.

[In the following essay, Cook discusses ‘Young Goodman Brown’ in terms of Hawthorne's probing of the moral imagination, pointing out that Brown's motives are ambiguous, but that the results of his actions are “clear and frightening.”]

“Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart …”

Hamlet v. 2, 220


In a literary epoch when the dominant field of action was the frontier settlement, the forest, and the fort, Hawthorne focussed on the world of moral imagination. His “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) is a paradigm of this particular world, and Brown's behavior on a fateful night in his life is the key to this haunting tale. Although the motives for Goodman Brown's behavior are ambiguous, the consequences of his compulsive acts are clear but frightening.

It is truly an enchanted forest into which Goodman Brown enters on his way to keep a tryst. “The magic forest,” says Heinrich Zimmer in The King and the Corpse, “is always full of adventures. No one can enter it without losing his way. The forest has always been a place of initiation for there the demonic presences, the ancestral spirits, and the forces of nature reveal themselves.” Brown is no exception. For in the forest he is made aware of demonic presences, ancestral spirits, and he confronts the forces of nature in their strange and fearful aspects. “The forest is the antithesis of house and heart, village and field boundary, where the household gods hold sway and where human laws and customs prevail,” continues the explanatory Zimmer. “It holds the dark forbidden things—secrets, terrors, which threaten the protected life of the ordered world of common day.” With one exception this is true of Brown's experience. The seat of darkness upon which the castle of Merlin stands in the forest of ancient myth is transformed in Hawthorne's tale into a Witches' Sabbath where the enchantments of primitive mythology are secularized in the dour Calvinistic scheme of universal human guilt.

“But the chosen one, the elect, who survives its [the enchanted forest's] deadly peril is,” as Zimmer says, “reborn and leaves it a changed man.” Ironically, Brown's initiation and rebirth represent an inversion of the customary ritual. His survival is physical; forevermore he is spiritually spellbound, the effect of which is both bewilderment and distrustfulness. Sinking into a torpor of unredemptive guilt-consciousness, when he dies no hopeful verse is carved upon his tombstone, “for his dying hour was gloom.”

The reader does not fail to see that as Brown goes from the village to the forest he passes from a conscious world to a subconscious one. Upon returning from the extraordinary forest coven to the commonplace village orthodoxy, Brown's traumatic shock leaves him a deeply suspicious man. To a reader indoctrinated in Freudian and Jungian psychology the tale gathers meaning from the modern explorations of the subconscious mind, enkindles the aesthetic sensibility by its reliance on imagination, and appeals to the antirational, which interests us in the surrealistic art of Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, and Joan Miro.

We are introduced to the strange world of young Goodman Brown by its “solidity of specification.” The locale is Salem Village; the time shortly after King Philip's War. Since the forest is fifteen minutes from the village, the action is significantly within the ambit of civilized society. Only the forest of the night is strange. The beginning and the end of the tale are real enough but the middle is somnambulistic. At the close Hawthorne inquires: “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?” Not to keep us waiting, Hawthorne begins the next paragraph balefully. “Be it so if you will, but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown.” If the author's “be it so if you will” is so much dust in the eyes to keep us off the target, I for one don’t mind. Hawthorne's make-believe is more evocative of the heart's truths than many realist's spitting image of actuality.


When he leaves his three-months' wedded wife, Faith (an obvious symbol) and her pink ribbons in Salem, Brown's nocturnal journey, it is understood, cannot be postponed. It must be accomplished between sunset and sunrise. Nor is it enticing journeying. The road is dreary and narrow; the forest is gloomy. The real can hardly be distinguished from the illusory. Shadow density is accentuated. Twilight fades into dusk, dusk into gloomy night. It is scary—“as lonely as could be”; and perhaps a devilish Indian stands behind every wayside tree.

Then Brown is joined by a fellow traveler of the same rank, similarly dressed, resembling him in expression but distinguishable. He is, indeed, the Devil. Not Cotton Mather's diabolical “small black man,” or Goethe's Mephisto, the tempter, or Henry James's clever Peter Quint, or Gide's raissoneur, or Ivan Karamazov's irritating alter ego, but certainly God's old Arch-Enemy—an urbane intrigant, who carries for a fetish a twisted staff that resembles a great live black snake. The diabolic fellow traveler knows all about the hereditary taint in Brown's forebears. “They were my good friends,” he acknowledges familiarly. He once helped Brown's grandfather lash the Quaker women; he kindled the pitch-pine knot with which Brown's incendiary father ruthlessly set fire to an Indian village in King Philip's War. He has, to say the least, “a very general acquaintance here in New England.”

Smooth, wily, taunting, facile in argument, mercurial in mood, now gravely considerate, now irrepressible in laughter, he turns aside Brown's attempts to defend the good works of his family. Subtly the Devil succeeds in infecting Brown with an apprehension of evil in his family, in his friends, in his moral and spiritual advisers, in the worthies of the community, and, not least, in his young wife. Blighting what he touches, and denigrating whomever he mentions in human society, the Devil casts a spell of profound disillusionment on Brown. First he exposes the duplicity of Goody Cloyse, moral instructress of Brown's youth, whose shadowy figure appears on the forest path in the dusk. Stubbornly Brown refuses to succumb to general suspicion on such slight circumstantial evidence. He will still trust in Faith. So the Devil to break him down confronts him with the revered minister of the village and with good old Deacon Gookin. Brown, who has stepped aside from the thread of the narrowing forest path, cannot be sure of the shadowy figures that pass along the way; only their voices are recognizable. Goody Cloyse had mumbled anticipatory remarks about seeing somewhere in the forest at “the meeting” a nice young man (Brown!). The minister and the deacon anticipate seeing a goodly young woman (Faith!) “taken into communion.” Even this trying episode is not enough to overwhelm the devil-resistant Brown. He looks heavenward where the stars are “brightening.” “‘With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!’ cried Goodman Brown.” And he does for the moment.

Brown's resolution is not shaken until he hears from an ominous dark cloud the “confused and doubtful sound of voices” of both “pious and ungodly” people. One lamenting voice is that of a young woman—apparently Faith—“yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain.” This low-pitched, connotative statement is surely a stroke of Hawthorne's art when we consider the emotional plight of a baffled and bereft Brown. Shouting out Faith's name, he is mocked to the echo. Then his resolution breaks and, in his extreme dejection, the dark cloud disappears and a pink ribbon which flutters down compounds his anguish. There is no goodness he thinks; “sin is but a name.” He capitulates. “Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.” Abandoned, he despairs, and despairing, like Ethan Brand, he laughs hysterically loud and long. Unlike the Devil's laughter, his is not mirthful, but terrible to hear.

Brown runs madly along the wild, dreary, obscure path that takes him deeper into the heart of darkness. The night is now filled with frightful sounds and, among these, as in Moussorgsky's “A Night on Bald Mountain,” there is a sound “like a distant church-bell”—the wind. Possessed by the hysteria of despair, Brown tries to outlaugh what he thinks is the scornful derision of the wilderness. In the forest of the night—that is to say, in the blackness of his subconscious despair—“he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.” Devil-possessed and despairing, he runs through the haunted forest, brandishing his staff, venting horrid blasphemy, outracing the fiend who, by now, has pretty well victimized the bedeviled husbandman.

Goodman Brown's frenzied charge through the forest is halted by a lurid red light in a forest enclosure where a grave and darkclad congregation, their several voices rolling solemnly through the wild night, worship at a Witches' Sabbath. Before the forest-hemmed group rears a pulpit rock, illumined by blazing pine tops, and among the assembled leaders of the Salem community are both the reputable and pious as well as the suspect, dissolute, and criminal. Sinners and Indian priests, heathen and Christian, are distinguishable but united. And leading the impious assembly is one of the grave New England divines.

When the cry for converts is raised, Brown is led forward by Deacon Gookin to the blazing altar where he stands with another proselyte, a veiled woman, none other than Faith. Welcomed to the loathful brotherhood of lechers, poisoners, parricides, and infanticides, the couple is exhorted to be undeceived. “Evil is the nature of mankind,” they are told. “Evil must be your only happiness.” Before the fiend-light of the unhallowed altar, gazed at by faces “that would be seen next day at the council board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, look devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land,” the husband and wife about to be baptized in “the mystery of sin” look upon each other and shudder. Imploring his wife to resist the devil and look to heaven, Brown breaks the spell.

The telltale disclosure of Brown's illusory nocturnal meeting is a natural fact. First he staggers against a rock which feels chill and damp. Then a hanging twig, which a moment before had seemed on fire, “besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.” The tactile fact disabuses his overwrought imagination. The fiery twig is delusive. Nevertheless the nocturnal meeting will haunt him to his dying day. Next morning he is observed in Salem Village “staring around him like a bewildered man.” He shrinks from the good old minister; he challenges as a recusant the old Deacon whom he overhears praying; he interferes in Goody Cloyse's religious exercises by snatching away a child being catechized, “as from the grasp of the fiend himself,” and he behaves strangely to Faith who “almost kissed her husband before the whole village.”

Young Goodman Brown is not the same man who at sunset the day before entered upon the errand into the wilderness with such grudging compulsion. The “fearful dream” has done its work. Somewhere in this fact and phrase is the heart of Hawthorne's message, it would seem.


How shall we riddle this marvellous tale? One of Hawthorne's attributions is an ability to penetrate the surface of conscious perception. In his introduction to Psychology and Alchemy, Jung says: “It must be admitted that the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious can often assume grotesque and horrible forms in dreams and fantasies, so that even the most hard-boiled rationalist is not immune from shattering nightmares and haunting fears.” In “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne continues a lonely vigil in the dark surrealistic forest of the American mind. He reveals presciently the turbulence beneath the layers of the Puritan conscience: the form its guilt takes, the contributions of grace and election, the sense of justice, the invocation of mercy. He evokes the depth of the Puritan mind which expresses itself, not only in witches' waxen images pricked with thorns, but in the nocturnal coven and in the black man's book in which are inscribed names in blood from cut fingers. Under the spell of the dark imagination which apprehends tragic realities, Hawthorne never fails to acknowledge the community of human relationship. What Brown discovers is a terrible thing, surely; not that evil co-exists with good in human nature, but that “evil is the nature of mankind.” He also finds out what it means to be inducted into a mystery that makes him “more conscious of the secret of others.” And he exults as he beholds “the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot.” One mighty blood spot! To the exclusion of anything else, guilt prevails, and all things are evermore suspect.

The effect of Brown's discovery is terrible. What he should have recognized as only one of the powerful forces in “the collective unconscious” becomes the exclusive force. After the night of the fearful dream, Goodman Brown, of whom there are thousands resembling him as his name, sex, and age imply, is unable to accept as true of himself what is true of all men: that evil is counterbalanced by an essential good.

The dream journey is a remarkable one. The compulsion that drives him is not only inward (he doesn’t, for instance, share its motive with anyone else, certainly not with Faith); it is downward. The descent is symbolized by the journey from daylight into night, from consciousness to subconsciousness, from reality to illusion, from physical to psychical, from light to dark. The chief positive factor is Brown's fidelity to the covenant, the consequences of which suggest that fidelity is not a higher virtue than intelligent exercise of will. The effect upon him is negative; he is equal to the obligation of the tryst but he is not equal to its consequences. He is forever turned darkly inward, a distrustful and despairing man.

When Brown returns from the forest, the nature of his change is as arresting as the motive for his compulsive pact with the devil is equivocal. He has been there, but exactly why he has had to be there is not clear. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the mythic hero. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder,” he says; “fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious venture with the power to bestow honors on his fellow men.” How little of Campbell's description of the hero can be applied to Hawthorne's protagonist. The world of common day is in the tale; so, too, is the region of supernatural wonders and the fabulous forces. But there is no victory, and so Brown's return from the mysterious venture is without prestigious power to bestow honors. Quite the contrary. An antihero, he rabidly infects his fellow man with the virus of his grim, inexpiable despair of human trust.


What meaning does this tale have for us today? What in the story has survival value beyond the interest a reader has in the effectiveness of Hawthorne's artistic competence? How to account for Brown's malaise is really less relevant than the meaning of his actions. It would appear—and this is, I think, Hawthorne's insight—a case of psychic masochism in which Brown's compulsion is in reality the expression of the desire for self-punishment. Brown appears to do nothing wrong except to go through with a commitment that he might reasonably have rejected in the first place. Yet once having committed himself, he still might have exorcised the inner devil of suspicion. That he fails to do this is his particular story and our particular revelation. There is no forestalling self-punishment. Neither is it possible to modify the effects inflicted on others—on Faith and the community of Brown's fellowship. And this is similarly applicable to every self-destructive protagonist in literature, whether a Byronic, Melvilleian, Hardyesque, or contemporary fictional character.

The symbolic forest of the night is, in effect, young Goodman Brown's own dark soul where belief turns into doubt, faith into skepticism, and where the people encountered are the adumbrations of his daily familiars and ancestral past. This dream is symbolically true. Significantly, it underscores D. H. Lawrence's contention. “You must look through the surface of American art and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning,” said Lawrence. “Otherwise it is all mere childishness.” The symbolic meaning is to be found in the stresses and conflicts, the compulsions and repressions whose compensations, as Sir Herbert Read says in The Philosophy of Modern Art, are found in “the physical horrors of war and persecution.” The Walpurgis Nacht of Dachau and Buchenwald of the 1940's had its source in the conflict between the Nazis and the Jews for the extension of power in the economic system of twentieth-century Germany.

Hawthorne's tale embodies the effect of tensions applicable in the social life of a nation, a people, and individuals. “Young Goodman Brown” focusses on one of these archetypal stresses. The tale is, as we have noted, a paradigm. It focusses on a fearful dream that is part of our subconscious reality. Although Hawthorne's medium is fiction, he is focussing on truth as he understands it. But he has chosen to release this truth as though it were a dream fantasy. The gas ovens of the 1940's and the lurid Witches' Sabbath of the seventeenth century are equally symbolic. So symbolic, in fact, that he who runs may read, but he who runs with most deliberation may read the deepest meaning. Diabolism is quite as apparent in what others do to us by persecution as it is in what we do to ourselves when we fail in acknowledging the moral consequences of our actions.

The important point in Hawthorne's tale is not that Brown's malaise is, or seems, incurable, but that it is definitely symptomatic. Given these traits, tendencies, and impulses and the effect will be comparable. Anyone of us might be susceptible to a similar psychological predicament. The syndrome is complete. What is significant about the tale? The epiphany occurs when the reader released from the narrative's pervasive darkness is struck by Hawthorne's laser. However much Brown fails himself by stubborn will, determined pride, callow gullibility, and obsessively fixated self-centeredness, he does not, even in his frailty, fail us. As Robert Frost says: “So false it is that what we haven’t we can’t give.” This is one of the great paradoxes in the human condition. Brown's negativism challenges us to find a means of establishing positive traits. The opposite of Brown's unendurable world of incertitude is one where the enabling virtues of compassion and pity, love and trust, fidelity, and hope are activated. Brown, one in the gallery of Hawthorne's moody men which includes Brand and Bourne, Warland and Chillingworth, is the psychological victim hung up between damnation and salvation.

In the harrowing world of incertitude in which he lives out his days Brown is psychologically sick with the fear that what he has seen in the illusory forest of the night is so, that all those hallucinatory scenes were in reality peopled by victims of sin familiar to him. When illusions are mistaken for realities the victim is caught in his own trap; is, in effect, self-betrayed. Hawthorne's climactic statement is apposite. “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not desperate man, did he become from the night of that fearful dream.” In the forest of Brown's night only the wrath of God burns brightly. His journey into an awareness of evil brings a consciousness of guilt without redemption. Unable to transcend the experience through humility and compassion, he is resigned to desperation. In consequence, he symbolizes the man who is shriveled rather than tempered by the pain and suffering which accompany an encounter with evil. It can never be said of him as it is said in Meister Eckhart: “Not till the soul knows all that there is to be known can she pass over to the unknown good.”

Hawthorne's insight is startling: that confronting us everywhere is the inescapable universal guilt, like one mighty blood spot as ineradicable as the stains on Lady Macbeth's hands and soul. The effect on Brown—and on us—is haunting. This tale reenacts an unfortunate fall. Brown keeps his compact, encounters a demon, and suffers an ordeal, only to be irrevocably transformed by the experience in no soul-cleansing way. “But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter;” says Melville, “how small the chances for the provincials then?” Small, indeed, if the provincial is like Goodman Brown who, when tested by a searing experience, proves equal to the occasion but unequal to its effect, and forever after remains a victim of a corrosive soul-torturing suspicion of general human guilt.

Robert Emmet Whelan, Jr. (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: “Hawthorne Interprets ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 62, Winter, 1971, pp. 2-4.

[In the following essay, Whelan argues that, unlike The Scarlet Letter, in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne leaves no possibility of redemption for the protagonist at the conclusion of the tale, for Brown's “self-inflicted nightmare” haunts him until his death.]

Though we have good explications of “Young Goodman Brown,”1 the best and most succinct is Hawthorne's, appearing as a description of Hester Prynne's moral state in the penultimate paragraph of Chapter V of The Scarlet Letter: “Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had she been of a softer moral and intellectual fibre, would have been still more so, by the strange and solitary anguish of her life. Walking to and fro, with those lonely footsteps … it now and then appeared to Hester,—if altogether fancy, it was nevertheless too potent to be resisted,—she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. She was terror-stricken by the revelations that were thus made. What were they? Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as yet only half his victim, that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne's? Or, must she receive those intimations—so obscure, yet so distinct—as truth? In all her miserable experience, there was nothing else so awful and so loathsome as this sense. It perplexed, as well as shocked her, by the irreverent inopportuneness of the occasions that brought it into vivid action. Sometimes the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, to whom that age of reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship with angels. ‘What evil thing is at hand?’ would Hester say to herself. Lifting her reluctant eyes, there would be nothing human within the scope of view, save the form of this earthly saint! Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself, as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life. That unsunned snow in the matron's bosom, and the burning shame on Hester Prynne's,—what had the two in common? Or, once more, the electric thrill would give her warning,—‘Behold, Hester, here is a companion!’—and, looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly averted with a faint, chill crimson in her cheeks; as if her purity were somewhat sullied by that momentary glance. O Fiend, whose talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing, whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere?—such loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin. Be it accepted as proof that all was not corrupt in this poor victim of her own frailty, and man's hard law, that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself” (V, 111-112).2

No such proof, however, can be urged in defense of Young Goodman Brown; for, as a result of his journey into the wilderness of temptation and sin, he comes to believe that all his fellow mortals are guilty like himself. Just before he becomes completely corrupt—just before he is baptized into Evil by Satan—he is surrounded by that nightmare vision which takes all its reality from the diseased activity of his own sinful mind and heart. At this moment he is about to receive in fullest measure that new sense which apparently grants him, as it apparently granted Hester, “a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sins in other hearts” (V, 111). It is this sixth sense that Satan describes when, pointing to his assembly of worshipers, he addresses these words to Goodman Brown and Faith: “There … are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here they are in my worshipping assembly. This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds. … By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot. Far more than this. It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds” (II, 103-104).

Because of his own sins, therefore, Brown's faith has grown too weak to “‘look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one’” (II, 105); and this is why Brown receives upon his forehead the mark of baptism that makes him “more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than [he] could now be of [his] own” (II, 104). In reality, the only new faculty Brown acquires from his reception into the Devil's communion is the gift of experiencing the deep mystery of sin at work within his own breast. The most pernicious effect of it is that it deceives him into believing that he can now sense the presence of hidden sin in every heart. Having listened too credulously to “the insidious whispers of [his] bad angel,” he has interpreted these “intimations [of his own sinful heart]—so obscure, yet so distinct—as truth;” and has thus persuaded himself that “the outward guise of purity [is] but a lie” (V, 111). These obscure intimations, then, are the psychological reality behind Goodman Brown's finding all his fellow townsmen at the witch-meeting in the wilderness.

The early stages of Brown's descent into depravity are rather obviously dramatized by his conversation with the devil, who discourses so aptly “that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself” (II, 95). Naturally enough, the further Goodman Brown travels into the darkness of temptation and sin, the darker become the moral spectacles through which he views his fellow men. Attempting in the manner of most sinners to mitigate his sinfulness by means of self-deceptive rationalization, Brown calls to mind, with his personal devil's help, that neither his grandfather, in his cruelty to the Quakers, nor his father, in his cruelty to the Indians, was exactly an exemplary Christian. Nor is it long before the representatives of church and state—the church deacons, the selectmen, the governor and his council—are seen through the disfiguring lens of Brown's self-inflicted astigmatism. Brown's faith is more seriously threatened when he allows himself to turn this disfiguring lens of cynicism upon the Goody Cloyse who taught him his catechism, and then upon the minister and the deacon of his own church. From doubts about the virtue and sanctity of these pillars of religious faith to actual scepticism about the truth of religious faith itself is an easy step which Hawthorne marks allegorically when he has Brown behold one of Faith's pink ribbons falling from the heavens; for upon beholding this symbol of faith Goodman Brown, “maddened with despair,” cries out, “My Faith is gone! … There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given” (II, 99). To be brief, when Brown apparently discovers that Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, the minister, and Faith herself are on their way to join the assembly of devil-worshipers, Hawthorne is merely giving us the allegorical orchestration of the measure to which Brown's sin-tainted imagination steps. Because sin has darkened his heart Brown finds himself left “in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil” (II, 99). He is “the chief horror of [this] scene” because he is really the only horror.

When we leave Salem with Goodman Brown, neither he nor we are really doing so except in the sense that we depart from the objective world of Salem into the subjective world of Goodman Brown's heart. There Brown's “Faith” in God and his fellow man still dwells. In short, the faith that Brown's wife personifies is contained in the two great commandments—love of God and love of neighbor; and for this reason Hawthorne has Brown address his wife as “‘My love and my Faith …’” (II, 89). Because holy love still lives as a counsellor in his bosom Faith whispers, “Dearest heart … prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed tonight. … Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year” (II, 89). Indeed, Goodman Brown, in succumbing to temptation, journeys into the dark wilderness of sin and thereby separates himself from the sunshine of faith and love. Faith's request is the voice of conscience urging Brown to put his temptation behind him. The implication is the same when Hawthorne has Brown explain his late arrival to the devil with: “Faith kept me back a while” (II, 91). When a novice in evil like Brown is about to surrender to temptation, he usually deceives himself into thinking that after this one moral lapse he will repent and sin no more as Brown does when he tells himself that after the work of this one night he will “‘cling to [Faith's] skirts and follow her to heaven’” (II, 90). “With this excellent resolve for the future” he feels “justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (II, 90). And since Brown's self-deceptive rationalization deepens as he travels further into the forest, his personal devil (with allegorical promptitude) cajolingly says, “Let us walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go; and if I convince thee not thou shalt turn back. We are but a little way in the forest yet” (II, 91-92).

Unfortunately Brown never returns from the forest except in terms of the surface story. Yet in spite of his sin-blackened consciousness the life of Salem persists unchanged: the minister meditates his sermon; old Deacon Gookin appears at domestic worship; Goody Cloyse catechizes a little girl; and Faith, with all her pink ribbons, anxiously awaits Brown's return. Both she and the faithful remain a reality in Salem; but they have ceased to be realities within the “dream of evil omen” (II, 106) which has become Brown's sole inheritance as a result of his journey into sin. Concerning this Hawthorne leaves us in no doubt; for Goodman Brown shrinks from the minister's blessing “as if to avoid an anathema;” suspects Deacon Gookin of praying to Satan; snatches away the child being instructed by Goody Cloyse “as from the grasp of the fiend himself;” and, looking sadly and sternly into Faith's face, passes her by without a greeting (II, 105). Like Father Hooper, Brown reveals no one's depravity but his own when he looks around him and sees “‘on every visage a Black Veil’” (I, 69). And because his fearful dream continues, he lives on “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not desperate man” (II, 106). On the Sabbath, when the congregation sings a holy psalm, he cannot listen because the anthem of sin rushes “loudly upon his ear and [drowns] all the blessed strain” (II, 106). Brown's self-inflicted nightmare, still raging within him at the moment of his death, makes it allegorically impossible to carve any “hopeful verse” (II, 106) upon his tombstone.


  1. See D. M. McKeithan, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown:’ An Interpretation,” MLN, LXVII (February, 1952), 93-96; Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., “The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown,” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly], XIX (December, 1958), 331-336; and Paul J. Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” AL [American Literature], XXXVII (January, 1966), 410-419.

  2. Volume and page references to Hawthorne's works are to The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. George Parsons Lathrop, Riverside ed., 12 vols. (Boston, 1883).

Harry M. Campbell (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: “Freudianism, American Romanticism, and ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in CEA Critic, Vol. 33, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 3-6.

[In the following essay, Campbell criticizes the trend among Hawthorne critics to interpret “Young Goodman Brown” in Freudian terms, pointing out that this approach tends to oversimplify and narrow the interpretation of the story.]

Certainly Freudian criticism has made substantial contributions to the understanding of some aspects of American romanticism—in studies of the sexual symbolism in much of Whitman's best poetry, the tortured ambiguities of Melville's Pierre and some of his short stories, and the relation between Poe's probable impotence and his creative work, to mention only a few examples that come readily to mind. It has even been said that some of the American Romanticists themselves anticipated Freud in describing the shadowy subliminal origin of some of their images. It seems to me, however, that in the twilight area between the unconscious and the conscious of the Romanticists these vague beginnings of images which then emerged into the conscious and became full images were not pre-Freudian but were far closer to what Jacques Maritain has called creative intuition or the spiritual preconscious, of which, says Maritain, “Plato and the ancient wise men were aware, and the disregard of which in favor of the Freudian unconscious alone is a sign of the dullness of our times.” Maritain says that poetic intuition is born in the unconscious but emerges from it, and the poet may be aware of it, as Bergson would have said, on the edge of the unconscious; but the Freudian unconscious is one “of blood and flesh, instincts, tendencies, complexes, repressed images and desires, traumatic memories, as constituting a closed or autonomous dynamic whole.” The Freudian unconscious, then, is automatic or deaf—“deaf to the intellect, and structured into a world of its own apart from the intellect.”1 If this description seems unfair to Freud, we must remember that even so devoted a psychoanalyst as C. G. Jung, who for several years was a follower of Freud, finally broke with him in 1913, because, in Jung's opinion, Freud's unconscious is limited to the “animal” and does not include the “divine” in man. In other words, the libido for Jung is equivalent to all psychic energy, both “human” and “divine,” or, as one critic has said, Jung's libido “is created genetically and is desexualized. …”2

Freud's position, to say the least, is paradoxical, perhaps even contradictory. He acknowledges his indebtedness to the romantic poets and philosophers who he says discovered the unconscious before him, but at the same time Freud's philosophy is deterministic and he claims to be strictly scientific. With all his interest in literature, it constitutes for him a type of clinical study, and he considers the literary man a neurotic escapist from reality—the escape being relatively harmless unless it becomes involved with religion, which Freud regards as a dangerously harmful illusion.

The real connection, in my opinion, between Freudianism and some types of Romanticism is (1) their overemphasis on the supremacy of the individual—his boundless possibilities for realizing both pleasure and happiness, the Aristotelian distinction between pleasure and happiness becoming somewhat blurred in the process; and (2) the tendency of both Freudianism and certain types of Romanticism to employ extravagant metaphors or symbols. The loose metaphors of the Romantic poets have been analyzed and attacked (sometimes unjustly) by the New Critics. Freud, too, is fundamentally a Romantic poet though writing in prose and concentrating on sexual metaphors or symbols that will hardly bear close logical inspection to describe the hidden motives of human thoughts and actions. The fertility of his poetic imagination applied usually to sex (sometimes to other bodily functions) reminds one of Whitman and may have its origin in ancient Dionysian or phallic rites which Whitman, it will be remembered, named as one of his many “faiths.”

Freud, to be sure, does show some imaginative discrimination in the application of his theory to literature, but, perhaps flattered by their adoration of him, he lends his approval to the work of some of the most extreme among his followers—most notably perhaps Albert Mordell and Marie Bonaparte. In The Erotic Motive in Literature, for example, Mordell says that the source of much re-explanation of creative genius will be found “in the infantile love life of the authors.” And in her Edgar Poe, Étude Psychoanalytique, Marie Bonaparte postulates a strong unconscious necrophilia in Poe stemming originally from his infantile sexual desire for his mother. Of course, fixation on his mother was undoubtedly one of the sources of Poe's abnormality; but, since his mother died when he was three years old, it is highly questionable whether infantile sexuality could extend that far back—such was the more reasonable conclusion of Krutch's distinguished psychoanalytical biography on this point.

If, then, there is clearly danger of excess in Freudian criticism of obviously abnormal writers like Poe, how much more caution is needed in applying such criticism to Romantic authors such as Hawthorne and Longfellow, who were not in reality sexually abnormal and for whom sex (even imaginatively) was not of primary importance as it was for Whitman.

My final illustration is concerned with the Freudian analyses of “Young Goodman Brown,” specifically those by Roy Male, Daniel G. Hoffman, and Frederick C. Crews. Crews says that Brown's whole forest journey is “a vicarious and lurid sexual adventure” of one whose “sexual attitude is that of a young boy rather than a normal bridegroom,” and whose “fantasy experience, like that of Robin Molineux, follows the classic Oedipal pattern.”3 Male says that “almost everything in the forest scene suggests that the communion of sinners is essentially sexual. …”4 Daniel G. Hoffman finds that “phallic and psychosexual associations are made intrinsic to the thematic development of [Hawthorne's] story. … Brown's whole experience is described as a penetration of a dark and lonely way through a branched forest. … At journey's end is the orgiastic communion amidst the leaping flames.”5 Of the pink ribbons specifically, Male says, “… the pink ribbons blend with the serpentine staff in what becomes a fierce orgy of lust” (p. 79).

My objection to these interpretations is that they oversimplify Hawthorne by making him narrowly Freudian (or pre-Freudian). In the first place, there is nothing in the story specifically indicating the sexual blending of the ribbons referred to by Male and carried to a further extreme by Daniel Hoffman and especially by Crews. The ribbons—mentioned several times near the beginning of the story, again just before (and helping to precipitate) the climax, and again at the end (where Faith joyfully greets Brown returning from the forest)—are an important unifying symbol. They operate at the literal level to identify the young and faithful wife. The ribbon falling from the sky in the dark forest indicates that she has succumbed to temptation. Brown's perception of the falling ribbon indicates also that he has ceased to struggle against temptation (“My Faith is gone!”), and he immediately rushes to the Witches' Sabbath.

The apparent realism of the falling ribbon (to which Matthiessen objects, though not on Freudian principles) is only one aspect of the calculated ambiguity which Hawthorne achieves all through the story. His great artistry consists in his keeping the reader in the twilight zone between the fantastic or the supernatural and the realistic, with a leaning toward the former but with enough of the latter to make his treatment of “the mystery of sin” both complex and convincing. In this twilight zone the effect on the reader soon moves from an association to a fusing of the realistic and the fantastic. The realistic falling ribbon, then, soon (and almost imperceptibly) merges into the supernatural atmosphere of the preparation for the Witches' Sabbath—the same type of fusion that has been in process throughout the story.

Of course, sexual sins are mentioned in the Witches' Sabbath, but so are various other sins. For Hawthorne fornication and adultery were sins, even when (as with the lovers in The Scarlet Letter) there were mitigating circumstances. But for Hawthorne, as for Dante, there were far worse sins than the carnal (that of Chillingworth, for example, in The Scarlet Letter), and these also are in “Young Goodman Brown.” Brown feels “a loathful brotherhood” with the congregation at the Witches' Sabbath “by the sympathy of all [italics mine] that was wicked in his heart”; and the Devil says in his sermon to the whole group: “It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts. …”

Brown's sin, then, is far worse than deserting his wife. There is no real evidence for believing, as does Crews, that the main theme of “Young Goodman Brown” is “Brown's horror of adulthood, his inability to accept the place of sexuality in married love.” As a matter of fact, Brown has been very happily married to Faith, and the thought of this happiness almost persuades him to return to her after he has been disillusioned by discovering the wickedness of his former spiritual teacher Goody Cloyse. As he is resolving to return to Faith, these thoughts go through his mind: “And what calm sleep would be his that very night, which was to have been spent so wickedly, but so purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith!” Furthermore, the melancholy of Faith at his departure and her rejoicing at his return indicate that she has been as happy in their marriage as he. The immediate cause of Brown's failure to act on his good resolution to return to Faith is the appearance in the evil forest of two others, Deacon Gookin and the minister, in both of whom Brown has trusted for spiritual guidance, but who were clearly headed for the Witches' Sabbath. Such, in Hawthorne's opinion, are the depths of “the mystery of sin” that even happily married people are often destroyed by it. Even Faith participated in the evil rites but recovered the next day and could have been happy again if Brown could also have recovered.

Crews limits Brown's “fantasy-experience” to “the classic Oedipal pattern … conjoined with ambiguous sexual temptation.” When the Devil is reciting to Brown the sins of Brown's ancestors, Crews interprets them all as sexual. For example, the constable lashing “the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem” is, in Crews's opinion, guilty of sadistic “sexual irregularity.” Following this pattern, the pitch-pine knot with which Brown's father set fire to an Indian village would have to be a phallic symbol. The “state secrets” of the church deacons, town selectmen, and members of the Great and General Court referred to by the Devil would have to be sexual in implication, for, as Crews tells us, Brown's whole forest experience “serves his private need to make lurid sexual complaints against mankind.”

To repeat: The dramatic interweaving of realism with fantasy so that we willingly suspend our disbelief in the fantasy is facilitated by the pink ribbons, which are used both to maintain the realism and to unify the story. Sexual sin is present in this story, because it is part of what Hawthorne considered to be the evil in human nature, but to interpret the ribbons, the serpentine staff, the pine-knot, the constable's whip, and other objects mentioned in the story as specifically sexual symbols is to limit it to a narrowly Freudian allegory. Hawthorne was concerned, indeed almost obsessed, with what he considered to be “the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts,” and the power of his work lies in his ability to dramatize his ideas so that they move even those who disagree with him about the nature of man.

Freudian criticism, then, can throw light on those aspects of American Romanticism which are predominantly sexual, at least in implication, but to push such analysis beyond this point is not much more helpful than, though seldom so ridiculous as, the explanation by one Freudian critic that Little Red Riding Hood's red cap is a menstrual symbol and that her whole story is an allegory of the conflict between male and female in which the young virgin outwits the ruthless, sex-hungry “wolf.”6


  1. Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York, 1955), p. 67.

  2. Frederick J. Hoffman, Freudianism and the Literary Mind (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1945), p. 44, quoting Fritz Wittels.

  3. Frederick C. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers (New York, 1966), pp. 102, 103.

  4. Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (Austin, Texas, 1957), p. 78.

  5. Daniel G. Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York, 1961), pp. 165-166.

  6. Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language (New York, 1957), p. 240.

Fred Erisman (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’—Warning to Idealists,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 14, Spring, 1972, pp. 156-58.

[In the following essay, Erisman suggests that in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne wanted to point out the psychological and social dangers of “excessive innocence.”]

Readings of Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) focus almost exclusively upon its dual evocation of Calvinism and demonism. The Puritanic gloom and the Satanic gleam that permeate the story are so obviously significant, in fact, that one scholar has virtually denied the possibility of any other readings.1 There is, however, persuasive evidence that Hawthorne had more than Puritans and witches in mind as subjects for his tale. Indeed, his treatment of Young Goodman Brown himself, of the curious nature of faith, and of the effects of the loss of faith, taken in the context of Hawthorne's intellectual development in the years immediately prior to 1835, points to the conclusion that he was making a much broader religious and philosophical comment than is usually recognized.

Hawthorne's presentation of Young Goodman Brown is richly suggestive. Brown is, of course, “Goodman.” Although this is a commonplace form of seventeenth-century address,2 the reader familiar with Hawthorne's multi-leveled technique cannot help hearing echoes of “good man,” with its implications of human goodness. Moreover, Brown is Young Goodman Brown, with all the idealistic self-reliance of youth. As he says at one point, “I have nothing to do with the governor and council; they have their own ways, and are no rule for a simple husbandman like me.”3 Finally, as “husbandman” connotes, he is very much a married man. Wed to his Faith, he is, literally, a “man of faith,” both as husband and as believer. In these qualities Hawthorne gives an important clue to one theme of the tale.

A second clue emerges in the way in which Hawthorne deals with faith. On the one hand, Faith is no more than Brown's literal wife. On the other, however, faith is also what Mark Twain (in Following the Equator) has called “believing what you know ain’t so”—i.e., an intuitive, non-reasoned belief that is, and must be, taken for granted. As such, it demands total commitment. Faith, in the pure state, cannot be modified or compromised without being destroyed; when its polished ideality meets the bleak reality of experience, it is shattered. Such, too, is Young Goodman Brown's faith. In its original, pristine form, it sustains him: “With heaven above and Faith below,” he says, “I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (p. 1038). This faith, however, can be affected by experience. “Depending upon one another's hearts, he had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream,” says the sable leader of the witches' Sabbath: “Now are ye undeceived” (p. 1041). In the presence of knowledge, hope (or faith) vanishes. And, when Brown's idealized faith at last disappears, it is replaced by a corroded, bitter, equally all-embracing faith: “‘My faith is gone!’ cried he [Brown], after one stupefied moment. ‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given’” (p. 1038). The sullying of Brown's faith, as so often happens with absolutistic, viscerally held faiths, results in an equally absolutistic reversal.

Hawthorne's treatment of the effects of Brown's loss of faith completes the picture. The destruction of his idealized faith destroys Young Goodman Brown. Unlike the true Calvinist, who, as Perry Miller has noted, “emphasized his [man's] irremediable depravity and found in him nothing whatsoever that was good,” and who did his best to live with this knowledge, Brown is annihilated.4 He becomes an embittered, cynical and “distrustful” man, living out a life of suspicion and dying in an hour of gloom (p. 1042). His reaction to the discovery of evil in mankind, far from being that of the sincere (or even insincere) Calvinist, is that of the disillusioned idealist.

The point that Hawthorne is making seems plain. Throughout the tale, he reveals the hazards of excessive innocence; of excessive regard for youth and self; and of excessive reliance upon an idealistic, untested faith. He singles out for criticism, in short, qualities that characterize the Romantic in general, and the Transcendentalist in particular, presenting them in such a way that “Young Goodman Brown,” for all its Puritan overtones, can be seen as a cautionary remarking upon the embryonic stages of Transcendentalism.

Although Emerson's Nature was not to appear until 1836, Hawthorne by 1835 had had ample opportunity to become aware of the development of Transcendental thought in New England. As his charges at the Salem Athenaeum show, he had already withdrawn the first nine volumes of The Christian Examiner, containing contributions by W. E. Channing, George Ripley, Charles Follen, Andrews Norton, C. C. Felton, and William Bourne Oliver Peabody, on subjects so diverse as antinomianism, Goethe, Quakerism, Unitarianism, and the common-sense philosopher Dugald Stewart. Moreover, he had had access to Robert Barclay's An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1775), on Quaker thought; to Coleridge's Aide to Reflection (1825), with its crucial distinction between Reason and Understanding, as well as to the poetry of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats; to The Koran; to fourteen of the thirty-seven volumes of Rousseau's Oeuvres Completes (1788); to either Schiller's Kleinere Prosaische Schrifte (1792-1802) or Thomas Carlyle's Life of Schiller; and to Dugald Stewart's Philosophical Essays.5 Although, to be sure, he was at the same time reading Machiavelli and the Mathers, he was obviously being exposed to the works and ideas that contributed to the foundations of Transcendentalism.

Hawthorne's acquaintance with Transcendentalism is customarily dated from his courtship of Sophia Peabody in 1838 and after.6 It is clear from his library records, however, that, by the time he wrote “Young Goodman Brown,” he was generally acquainted with the raw materials from which Transcendentalism sprang. When one considers his later reservations about the absolute validity of Transcendental idealism (as stated, for example, in his sketch of the Giant Transcendentalist in “The Celestial Railroad” of 1843, or in his version of the Brook Farm phalanx in The Blithedale Romance of 1852), it seems probable that he would respond to the earlier materials as he did to the later—as a dedicated skeptic. This skepticism, explicit in such approximately contemporaneous stories as “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” or “Dr. Heidegger's Experiment,” is implicit in “Young Goodman Brown.” Although Hawthorne's chief concern throughout the story is certainly the examining of a young man's discovery of evil, he makes that discovery all the more striking by making its effects avoidable. Had Young Goodman Brown been less absolutistic, less dependent upon a romantic faith, and more aware of the frailties of humanity, his fate would have been different. The fledgling philosophical idealists of his own time, Hawthorne seems to say, would do well to benefit from Brown's example.


  1. Richard H. Fogle, “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” New England Quarterly, 18 (1945), 454n.

  2. E. Arthur Robinson, “The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation,” American Literature, 35 (1963), 218-220.

  3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” in The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Norman Holmes Pearson (N.Y.: The Modern Library, 1937), 1035. Further references to this edition will appear in the text.

  4. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 402.

  5. For Hawthorne's library charges, see Marion L. Kesselring, “Hawthorne's Reading, 1828-1850,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 53 (1949), 55-71, 121-138, 173-194. For the contents of The Christian Examiner, see William Cushing, Index to the Christian Examiner (1879), reprinted in Research Keys to the American Renaissance, ed. Kenneth Walter Cameron (Hartford, Conn.: Transcendential Books, 1967), 3-82.

  6. Randall Stewart, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), 49ff.

Claudia G. Johnson (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Puritan Justification,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 200-03.

[In the following essay, Johnson discusses “Young Goodman Brown” in light of the Puritan doctrine of justification—the idea that God will “justify” sinners who recognize themselves as such and seek divine help. Johnson argues that Brown's actions are an example of false justification because he never admits to his own sinful nature.]

Criticism of “Young Goodman Brown” has traditionally been divided into speculations about the nature of the hero's journey. Was it a dream? Or was it reality? Newton Arvin is usually cited as representative of the view that Goodman Brown received a true vision of human depravity in the woods, and F. O. Matthiessen is representative of the view that the sins witnessed by young Goodman Brown were creatures of his own making.1 Almost no modern critic supports Arvin's view, however, so the old argument rarely arises in the old way. Questions about the reality of the story and Brown's relationship to it continue to interest critics, however.2 A new dimension is given the problem of Goodman Brown's relation to a special kind of reality in the light of what we know and what Hawthorne knew about the Puritan doctrine of justification, a belief which has to be understood in terms of Covenant Theology.3 The Puritan believed that, since Adam broke the first covenant with God in the Garden of Eden, man labored under the burden of God's wrath. However, God had made a second covenant which gave man hope for some respite from God's wrath during man's life on the earth; at a time of His choosing, God might open the hearts of certain men, allowing them to descend within in order to know themselves. All things on which they had depended and all pride were mortified. Only when they had lost self in this experience would they turn to God who, subsequently, lifted the sinners up and justified them, changing their relationships to God and making their lives on earth a little easier without the burden of God's wrath.

The Puritan minister gave considerable attention not only to what justification was, but to what it was not. He knew that many sinners had convinced themselves that they had made the justifying descent when, in fact, they had not. It was the Puritan minister's duty to urge self-scrutiny in this matter. If the sinner believed that he had been completely helpless in initiating his descent and had been utterly reduced by a “sense” of sin, then he had probably known a “true” descent. If, on the other hand, he thought that he had been in some small way responsible for initiating the descent, if he had been aware of an iota of goodness within himself at the time of descent, or if he had only “known” his sins without “having a sense” of them, then his had been a false or a mock descent. He could not, therefore, expect that he would be justified.

Young Goodman Brown's journey is just such a mock descent in the Puritan tradition. Like the Puritan sinner, he begins what seems to be a journey into an inner inferno. The landscape through which he travels is but a hellish externalization of his own heart. He encounters the fiend, who also rages in his own breast, and fiend worshippers. He hears hell's “awful harmony” of inhuman sounds and perverse hymns. He sees the “lurid” red blaze against the sky. The witches' sabbath is, like Milton's picture of hell, an inverse heaven: the harmonious music of heaven is discord here; the light, unlike that of heaven, “is “as one great Furnace, flam’d yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible. …”4 The once-angelic company is transformed, and the gathering in “Young Goodman Brown” is like the gathering of the fiends in Pandemonium around the throne of Satan to discuss the fate of Adam and Eve.

As if he were in the traditional Puritan descent, Goodman Brown's various “props” or “crutches,” those things on which he has depended, fall from under him. The father, the teacher, the state, the community, the church, the concept of womanhood are all challenged during his journey. But Goodman Brown's journey is far from being a genuine justifying descent. The story is, rather, similar to the Puritan minister's detailed description of the false descent, and young Goodman Brown is a paradigm for Hawthorne's negative definition of the unregenerate man whose incomplete experience with hell perverts his vision and warps his life.

Regeneration is only possible if one's sense of his own sin is as profound as that which the Puritans described in the genuine humiliation: the man in the throes of a true descent must feel that he is the most wretched creature on the earth and must know a mortification of pride in particular. To be sure, Goodman Brown knows despair and feels his own rational limitation in coping with the universe, but in no way would this hellish journey to a witches' sabbath be construed by the Puritans as a genuine descent, for Goodman Brown feels the depravity of others but not the full extent of his own.

Although the reader sees Goodman Brown as “the chief horror of the scene” (p. 99) Goodman Brown has no such vision of himself. In his decision to rage toward the witches' sabbath, he sees himself as choosing through pride to out-do the devil: “Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you” (ibid.). His descent does not bring him to a vision of his own helplessness and sinfulness. Rather, from motives of despair and revenge, he initially believes that he can willingly choose to combat evil. It is Faith's sinfulness that embitters him, not his own. Furthermore, his return to the village finds him piously snatching little children from the clutches of their teachers as if he, alone, were untainted.

Momentarily he feels, with repugnance, a sense of brotherhood with the community, but that which keeps Goodman Brown in gloom is the vision given those who partake of the devil's baptism: that he would ever be “more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought,” than he could ever be of his own (p. 104). This is conclusive evidence that Goodman Brown's descent was not genuine.

The point is not that a vision of dark reality (of either himself or of others) has warped his life. What he has seen is not a true vision of others or himself. His has been a mock journey, a false vision. Though the landscape of his heart was available to him, he never saw the true extent of its terrors. Like the passengers on the Celestial Railroad, he never exposes himself to the landscape and is, thus, never sufficiently humiliated to ascend in love to a new life. The dark vision he saw was not nearly so dark as the one he should have seen but did not see. Like the stock example of the deluded, self-satisfied man of the justification sermon, young Goodman Brown stands as a negative definition of the true regenerative descent.


  1. Newton Arvin, Hawthorne Boston: Little, Brown, 1929); F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941).

  2. Richard P. Adams, “Hawthorne's ‘Provincial Tales,’” New England Quarterly, 30 (March, 1957), 39; Richard Harter Fogle, “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” New England Quarterly, 18 (December, 1943), 448-465; David Levin, “Shadows of Doubt: Spectral Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” American Literature, 34 (May, 1963), 218-225; Taylor Stoehr, “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Hawthorne's Theory of Mimesis,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 23 (March, 1969), 393-409; Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., “The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown,” Modern Language Quarterly, 19 (December, 1958), 331-336. Walsh doesn’t believe that the reader can know or has to know whether the experience was real or a dream: rather one gets at the meaning offered to him by examining certain symbolic patterns. David Levin argues that the reader mistakenly supposes that the devil speaks for Hawthorne, whereas, the devil lies and all of his spectral evidence is untrustworthy. Stoehr believes that the whole point of the story is the relationship between fact and fiction. Goodman Brown is damned because he accepts the dream as reality through lack of faith. Fogle and Adams also stress Goodman Brown's dilemma of uncertainty. Adams notes that, “Having refused to look at evil, he is left in a state of moral uncertainty that is worse, in a way, than evil itself.”

  3. Almost all justification sermons contain some statement about Covenant Theology but succinct statements of the Covenant and justification, with which the American Puritans would agree, appear in John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Books II, III (Philadelphia, MCMLX). The following is a selection of justification sermons which serve to clarify the doctrine: William Dewsbury, A Sermon on the Important Doctrine of Regeneration (Philadelphia, 1740); Giles Firmin, The Real Christian (Boston, 1742); Cotton Mather, The Everlasting Gospel (Philadelphia, 1767); Samuel Mather, The Self-Justiciary Convicted (Boston, 1707); Thomas Shepard, The Sincere Convert (Philadelphia, 1664); Gilbert Tennent, The Duty of Self Examination (Boston, 1739); Samuel Willard, A Brief Discourse on Justification (Boston, 1686).

  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957), p. 10.

Michael J. Colacurcio (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 110, October, 1974, pp. 259-99.

[In the following essay, Colacurcio examines “Young Goodman Brown” in the context of Puritan theology, faith, and “spectral evidence” of witchcraft and the devil. Colacurcio suggests that Hawthorne uses his story to demonstrate “that witchcraft ‘ended’ the Puritan world”.]

Any seriously “complete” interpretation of Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” must somehow take account of David Levin's rather exact description of Brown's experience in the actual language of 1692. It may be possible to disagree with his final assertion that the “literal” dimension of “Young Goodman Brown” is “social,” condemning “that graceless perversion of true Calvinism which, in universal suspicion, actually led a community to the unjust destruction of twenty men and women”; but it seems impossible to deny that “spectral evidence” is, in some sense, the central issue of the tale. The attempt to “answer” him has proved unproductive; and it is now possible to see that all the early readings which argued that Brown's desperate conclusions might not be fully justified by the nature of his evidence were at least implicitly pointing out one central issue: namely, the inadvisability of accepting the Devil's word about the constitution and ordering of the invisible world.1

This is not to imply that psychoanalytic, even purely Freudian, acumen is out of place in the criticism of the tale. The author of a casebook on “Young Goodman Brown,” though obviously committed to a theological reading, can nevertheless show (with charts) a deliberately contrived and consistently maintained sexual “level” of allegory everywhere in the tale; thus, presumably, are freshmen persuaded that the moralist need be neither discomfited nor disgusted by the “impudent knowingness” of Frederick Crews.

But one need not choose tendentious examples to make the point. A recent study of Hawthorne's tale in relation to a Deodat Lawson pamphlet entitled Christ's Fidelity cannot let its criticism rest at this level of probable if curious historic encounter. Anxious lest he be misunderstood to think that Hawthorne's story is to be conceived chiefly as an answer to Lawson, or that Hawthorne writes only about the fixities and definites of a rather parochial (even tribalist) group of misguided religious zealots, the author feels the need to end with a ringing declaration of Hawthorne's psychological generality: “With his genius for insight and technique, Hawthorne thus created a new and timeless drama about the distortions of the human mind.” And even Levin himself, whose commitment to the “Defense of Historical Literature” is perfectly unambiguous, ends on a similar note: the important thing about Hawthorne is the way he worked a “narrow range of types and subjects” to discover a “remarkable range of insights into human experience.”2

What makes these gestures sympathetic is our perception of how accurately the critics in question have sensed the prejudices of their entrenched academic audience. That audience does not exactly cling to The Interpretation of Dreams as part of the canon of Revelation; but it does, very emphatically, believe that literature is more philosophically general than history. And, having substituted psychology for ontology as the first philosophy, its way of being philosophical is to affirm a commitment to abstractions such as “the human mind” or “human experience.” If Freud turns out to have given us the ultimate structures, well, so be it. We’d much prefer the softer, not-quite-consistent determination of an Erik Erikson. Better still would be our own random gleanings from our favorite humanist authors, seriatim and ad hoc. But we can face the truth, so long as it’s a General Truth. We are, apparently, willing to take our Platonism wherever we can find it.

Now granting the inevitability of all this, the point is still that “timeless” psychoanalytic readings of “Young Goodman Brown” do not circumvent the problems of 1692: even if we choose to say that the devil's forest sideshow is only a fantasy conjured up out of Brown's own sexually troubled psyche (so that he is the victim of his own devil), we are still involved in what Hawthorne always thought of as the “spectral regions” of the “haunted mind.” To put the case quite bluntly: not only are the proven Puritan sources of the tale obsessed with the technical implications of spectral evidence, which wracked the official conscience of latter-day Puritanism like almost no other; not only is specter evidence the explicit vehicle of the tale, determining the ultimate psychological meaning as surely as a “red, red rose” determines the aspect under which “my love” can be known; but further, from “Alice Doane” straight through his unfinished romances Hawthorne allowed the Puritan language of the “invisible world” to determine his vocabulary and set the limits to his own psychological investigations. In short, it would have taken a singularly obtuse reading of Cotton and Increase Mather (not to mention Deodat Lawson) to have missed either the specific or the general import of their actual problem; or a singularly dilettantish reading to preserve dozens of minute details while ignoring their significance; or a singularly self-involved reading to reduce the whole affair to a version of his own oedipal anxieties.3

In fact, Hawthorne's story preserves the central Puritan issue of spectral evidence in an even larger way than Professor Levin has suggested. Significantly, “Young Goodman Brown” is not “about” the Salem Village trials any more than “The Gentle Boy” is “about” the judicial murder of Quaker protesters in 1659. Although the tale refers to certain non-diabolical personages whose names figure in the records of 1692, there is nothing about witch hunts in the tale: the unhappy Goodman Brown simply lives out his faithless life in quiet and gloomy desperation; there is no suggestion that he was ever to know the clash of courtroom controversy. We can say, if we wish, that the action takes place “near Salem Village, probably in 1692,” but there is no need to insist on this sort of pseudo-historicity.4 Far more significant, as we shall see, is the simple fact that Goodman Brown is a third-generation Puritan. At issue, accordingly, is far more than that one infamous outbreak of “universal suspicion,” though Hawthorne's mature reflections in “Main Street” (1849) make it clear that the gothic terror of “Alice Doane's Appeal” was not mere managed melodrama; that Hawthorne continued to feel real horror when he thought of that outbreak. In “Young Goodman Brown” an important habit of the Puritan mind is on trial: even as Hawthorne revises “Alice Doane's Appeal” he discovers that the problem of how to tell a witch is distressingly similar to the radically Puritan problem of how to tell a saint.5

Although the episode of 1692 stood out like an ugly blot on the historical page, Hawthorne could not view it as an isolated event, separate from the whole character of Puritan moral experience. As with the Quaker persecutions, customary moral assumptions might not always produce their most proper psychological effects; but it was not altogether surprising if occasionally they did. They did, Hawthorne felt, in the actual events of 1692, and they do in the fictional experience of Goodman Brown. His story is, like that of Tobias Pearson, Hawthorne's way of inspecting certain pervasive Puritan attitudes. If Hawthorne would not “localize” his response to 1692, neither would he quite “universalize” it. We will not find him saying (explicitly) with certain modern historians that, since nearly everyone in the seventeenth century believed in witchcraft, there can be nothing peculiar about the episode at Salem Village; nor (implicitly) with certain modern critics that, since all minds are tempted to bad faith and projection, there can be no specifically “Puritan” version of witchcraft. In Hawthorne's rigorous view, Goodman Brown's forest-education enfigures the ultimate breakdown of the Puritan attempt to define the human form of the Kingdom of God: “spectral evidence” turns out to be only the negative test case of the definitive Puritan problem of “visible sanctity.”


At the beginning of his fateful excursion into the forest, Goodman Brown is a more than tolerably naive young man. We scarcely need to observe his dismay at hearing (and then seeing) communicants and tavern-haunters, saints and sinners, mixed together to sense his initial assumption that the orderly divisions of the Puritan Community embody Moral Reality. More particularly, his initial attitude toward his wife is so naive as to be condescending: “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee” (II, 89).6 On the face of things this is too easy; and the reader of “Fancy's Show Box” knows that, on the contrary, “In the solitude of a midnight chamber … the soul may pollute itself with those crimes we are accustomed to deem altogether carnal” (I, 250). But such naivete is far from his worst trait. Whatever may be the truth about the moral character of Brown's pink-ribboned wife, and whatever may be our own working assumptions about the relation between faith and salvation, we are expected to worry about this Goodman's belief that “after this one night” he can cling to the skirts of Faith and “follow her to heaven” (90). Even before we get any sense of the sorts of self-indulgence that may become available to Goodman Brown, we know that this sort of temporizing with one's eternal salvation is likely to be risky.

Actually, as it turns out, Goodman Brown is already in a state of “bad faith”: there has already been some sort of devilish prearrangement concerning his nocturnal outing; he knows at the outset that he is going off to “keep covenant” with the Powers of Darkness. His “excellent resolve for the future” may be temporarily successful in allowing him to feel “justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (90), but the rationalization is as transparent to the psychologist as the risk is to the theologian; it is not likely to stand much testing. And, as an external sign of his compromised internal condition, he has already begun to be suspicious of others, even those in whose virtue he is most accustomed naively to trust. Accordingly, his wife's understandable plea that he stay with her, to quiet her fears, on this “of all nights of the year,” draws a nervously revealing response: “Dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married?” (89). Now October 31 is a good night for Puritans to stay home,7 and there is not the slightest evidence to suggest that Faith doubts her husband in any way. Brown's attitude is clearly some sort of guilty projection: his own will-to-evil is already causing him to begin the transfer of his own moral obliquity to others.

Clearly, then, much more is at stake than simple naivete, or the much-discussed innocence of the archetypal American hero. Studied closely, Brown's situation is not much like that of Robin Molineux.8 And well before the analyst has much evidence of oedipal anxiety to work on, any decent theologian (Puritan or otherwise) is constrained to conclude that Goodman Brown is deeply involved in that particular sort of bad faith which used to be called “presumption.” He is assuming his own final perseverance, even as he deliberately embarks on a journey which he knows is directed diametrically away from the normal pursuit of salvation. The point is not trivial: to understand the “unpardonable” gravity of his initial moral assumptions is to be protected from being more tender-minded about the terrifying results of his experience than Hawthorne's tough and tight-lipped conclusion asks us to be. No especially severe morality is required to see that, from one very significant point of view, Goodman Brown deserves whatever happens.9

Given the unflinching and unpardoning outcome, of a story that is already well under way when we first began to hear about it, we ought to find ourselves wondering how Goodman Brown has got himself already so far involved in the “unpardonable sin” of presumption. If everything seems to follow from, or indeed to be contained in, the initial situation of the story, perhaps that initial situation itself deserves very careful attention. We need to proceed with care: on the one hand, it is very easy to distort and make nonsense out of Hawthorne's delicate ethical formulae by going behind the donnée of his initial premises; on the other hand, his stories are often packed with clues about exactly “where,” morally speaking, we really are. And “Young Goodman Brown” does not leave us entirely without such clues.

If Brown is “but three months married” to Faith, then it is absolutely necessary to regard him as a recent convert to the high mysteries of the Puritan religion; Thomas Connolly is certainly right about this, even if the story is not as purely or consistently “allegorical” as he wants it to be.10 But evidently the situation is not quite simple, for we swiftly learn that this good man's father and grandfather have been faithful Puritans before him; and that he himself has been duly catechized, in his youth, by the dutiful Goody Cloyse. At the first glance there may seem to be some sort of confusion in the allegory: can Goodman Brown be, at once, a new convert and an heir to a redoubtable saintly ancestry and a formidable Christian nurture? The solution to this apparent difficulty, as well as the key to Goodman Brown's presumptuous psychology, lies in the implicit but clear and precise Puritan background of the story, in the subtly emphasized fact that Young Goodman Brown is a third-generation Puritan.

Thus even before we encounter any enchantments, we are forced to realize that Hawthorne's reading in Mather's Magnalia has been extremely perceptive and that his use of a particular Puritan world is entirely functional; for Goodman Brown is quite evidently the product (victim, as it turns out) of the Half-Way Covenant, that bold compromise by which the Puritans tried to salvage their theory of “visible sanctity,” of a church composed of fully professed saints, in the face of changing historical conditions.11 Externally, at least, Goodman Brown's status is perfectly standard, indeed inevitable: as a third-generation Puritan he would have been spending the years of his minority in the half-way situation defined by the compromise of 1662. Grandson of an original saint, son of a professing member, he has been reared, like virtually everyone else in his generation, in the half-way condition of presumptive but not yet professed or tested sainthood. Obviously he has had something to do with the community of visible saints because the promises of the new covenant are made with “the seed” of saints as well as with the saints themselves; but just as obviously he has not (until very recently) been a full, “communing” member because he had not been capable of that fully voluntary confession of conversion and profession of committed sainthood which alone could redeem the New England Way from the crassest sort of tribalism.

Original sin might well be transmitted by the simple act of physical generation. So also, as the theological plot thickened, might something called “federal grace”; or, less technically, a saint might fairly expect baptism for his seed, and baptism ought to have some gracious significance. But in the last analysis the new birth had to be truly “spiritual” in every sense; thus “sanctifying grace” could come neither biologically nor by infant ritual. And so, as the New England theology gradually clarified itself, that troubled third generation of Puritans simply had to wait: in the expectation of full, visible sainthood eventually, they all attended church, were duly catechized and nurtured, were thoroughly indoctrinated (and threatened) by jeremiads into the proper respect for the ancestral appearances of saintliness. And eventually some, however few, were admitted into that most guarded and holy of holies—full, “communing” membership.12 Into this ultimate earthly state, Goodman Brown has but newly entered. After years of “preparation” and presumptive but not proven sainthood Goodman Brown has, we must infer, finally received official certification by the public representatives of the Communion of Saints. In an ultimate theological sense, which in his world is by no means trivial, Brown has finally arrived. And this fact can scarcely be unrelated to the terrible ease of his moral premises.

Goodman Brown's assurance is not, one should hasten to stress, orthodox. The expounders of the Puritan system never tired of emphasizing that (despite Calvin's stress on the “comfort” the saint might find in a predestinarian system) one's assurance could never be complete: indeed too great (or, at any rate, too easy) an assurance should certainly mean that one's experience of gracious regeneration was illusory. But Hawthorne was no mere “expounder” of the system, and he seems to have sensed that all such warnings would not alter the basic psychology of the situation. Some modern commentators have held that the Half-Way Covenant inevitably cheapened the concept of sainthood by allowing some recognizable church-status to persons without, so far as they or anyone else could tell, any specifically “Christian experience.”13 Apparently Hawthorne thought otherwise: whenever one declared oneself a saint and had that weighty claim accepted by the community, the basic declaration and the social fact might well tend to loom larger, psychologically, than any attendant (fussy) qualifications about continuing uncertainty, or about the sole importance of God's free grace in the process, or about the continuing need for watchfulness and sanctification; and by providing a formalized schema of waiting or probation out of which many persons never moved, the Half-Way Covenant may well have served to increase this basic psychological tendency. Although the new dispensation served to broaden the base of baptized membership in the Puritan churches, it left the inner circle of full communicants as small as ever, and seemed, if anything, to heighten the significance of that sanctum sanctorum.14

When one moved, then, from the lamented and berated coolness of half-way membership into the warmth of full communion, the event could have no small significance. And one perfectly likely (though by no means “approved”) meaning of such an experience is implied in the moral posture of Goodman Brown as recent-convert. After all protective distinctions have been made, the doctrine of election, especially in the context of third-generation Puritanism, which Hawthorne so delicately evokes, is likely to mean the sin of presumption. Hawthorne seems to say it all in the first scene when he tells us that “Goodman Brown felt himself justified.” To Cotton Mather, no doubt; to Edward Taylor; or to any other approved theorist of latter-day Puritan conversion psychology, Brown would be an example of the bold hypocrite, outrageously presuming on grace: no really converted person ever would behave in such a manner. We can view him that way if we choose. To Hawthorne himself, however, he is only the enduring natural man whose naturally self-regarding instincts have been treacherously reinforced by the psychological implications of doctrine.

Now all of this is merely the story's background, implied by the setting and compressed context, and helping us to place the sociologically and doctrinally precise point of Goodman Brown's departure. If the analysis seems somewhat technical, we may well recall that, as early as the sketch of “Dr. Bullivant,” Hawthorne had been intensely interested in the mentality of declining Puritanism; and here he associates the experience of Goodman Brown not only with the context of the witchcraft (the most dramatic problem of Puritan third-generation declension) but also with the pervasive moral quality of that mentality.15 No one can read Hawthorne's known sources without sensing that with the death of the original saints, whose experience in England and in “coming out” to America made their stance of sainthood seem natural and believable, the problem of continuing an order of visible saints became disproportionate, even obsessive. The rest, perhaps, is Hawthorne's own speculation; but surely it is apt. No Arminian critic of Calvinism ever fails to warn that the doctrine of election protects the sovereignty of God only at the risk of human smugness, over-confidence, self-indulgence, antinomianism. The Calvinist doctrine of election looks very much like the traditional sin of presumption.16 And nowhere, Hawthorne cogently suggests, was the danger greater than in declining New England, in those exasperating days when the Puritan churches turned nearly all their attention to the continuance of churches constituted of God's visible saints. Obviously Goodman Brown's experience is not to be taken as a model of “Augustinian Piety.” And even if his career does not represent any sort of statistical Puritan “average,” he is a representative, latter-day Puritan nevertheless, following a highly probable moral logic. The general situation is indeed as Roy Harvey Pearce has suggested: “granting the Puritan faith … it is inevitable that Young Goodman Brown should have envisaged his loss of faith as he did and as a consequence have been destroyed as a person.”17

Accordingly, his situation will not bear immediate psychoanalytic translation or complete reduction. Of course Goodman Brown will prove anxious about his relation to his father, and to “his father before him”; this is an inevitable fact of Puritan life in the 1670's, 80's, and 90's, where, as Perry Miller has remarked, the spokesmen for the failing Puritan Way “called for such a veneration of progenitors as is hardly to be matched outside China.”18 It is their reputed level of piety which has, we are asked to imagine, been repeatedly used to mark the level of Goodman Brown's own declension. In a very real sense it is into the community of their putative sanctity that he has so recently been admitted. The perception that the Puritan world “in declension” was bound to be fraught with oedipal anxiety belongs as obviously to the order of history as to the order of psychoanalysis. And the suspicion that in such a world a son, however naive, might be all too likely to make certain diabolical discoveries about his venerable progenitors belongs to the order of common sense. Together these insights add up to something like the figure of Young Goodman Brown, the moral adolescent who, after years of spiritual (as well as sexual) anxiety, has newly achieved what his ancestors defined as “Faith”; and who is now, from the absolutely “inamissable” safety of that position, about to check out the reality of the dark world he has escaped.


The moral progress of Young Goodman Brown, from the presumption of his own salvation by Faith, together with a naive but thin confidence in the simple goodness of familiar saints; through a state of melodramatic despair; and on to the enduring suspicion that outside of his own will “there is no good on earth,” represents a triumph of compression unequaled in Hawthorne's art. Robin Molineux's “evening of weariness and ambiguity” is, by comparison, tediously drawn out. Here things happen almost too fast, and only with a sense of the special Puritan character of Brown's beginning can we accurately trace his path.

Brown enters the forest convinced that he can always return to the Bosom of Faith; his nice pink-ribboned little wife and his familiar place in a stable and salutary community of saints will always be there. It may be that neither his marriage nor his conversion has, after three months proved quite so enduringly satisfactory or perpetually climactic as could be hoped; but both have provided him with the assurance needed by one who would press beyond the limits of socialized sex or religion. Recalling the typological significance of marital union in “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” or of its absence in “The Man of Adamant,” we can see the danger of Brown's presumptive confidence. But the full significance of his presumption lies in his feeling that he can now explore the dimension of diabolical evil with impunity. Having joined the ranks of the safe and socially sanctioned he can, he believes, have a little taste of witchcraft, which is simply, as Cotton Mather says, human depravity par excellence: without the grace of Faith, “we should every one of us be a Dog and a Witch too.”19 An intriguing proposition. Now that he is finally sure which side he is on, he can afford to see how the other moral half lives.

The most significant fact about Brown's naive acceptance of the appearance of sanctity in his fellow saints is the swiftness with which it disappears. Based on the normal, approved, social, presumably “real” manifestations of goodness, it is destroyed by extraordinary, private, “spectral” intimations of badness. His ancestors have been “a race of honest men”; Goody Cloyse “taught him his catechism in his youth”; the Minister and the Deacon are pillars of the religious community, sentries who stand guard at the “wall” which surrounds the “garden” of true grace, models of converted holiness whose experiences are the standard by which those of new applicants for communion are judged. All this is evidentially certain: it is visible; it makes the Puritan world go round. But what if these same figures of sanctity are reported, or even “seen” to perform other actions? What if a grandfather is reputed to have had devilish motives in lashing a Quaker woman (half naked) through the streets? or the teacher of catechism is seen to conjure the Devil? or the sternly inhibiting elders are heard to smack their lips over a “goodly young woman” about to be taken into a quite different communion? Surely this contradiction of evidences will prove unsettling to a young man who has the habit of believing the moral world is adequately defined as the mirror-image opposition between the covenants and communions of God and Satan, and that these ultimate differences can be discovered with enough certainty to guarantee the organization of society. Only some very special, as yet undreamed species of faith could rescue him from such a contradiction of evidences.

Ultimately, of course, Goodman Brown passes through a phase of distraught, despairing confusion into a more or less settled state of faithless desolation. But more remarkable, almost, is the equanimity with which he at first accepts the Devil's “revelations.” He jokes about the moral secrets of his saintly ancestors: funny he had never heard any such family secrets before; no, on second thought he guesses they would keep their forest activities a secret, since we Puritans are “a people of prayer and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness” (92). With the telling and technical pun on “Boot” (a seventeenth-century nickname for the Devil), the joke is a little funnier to us than it consciously is to Goodman Brown. As yet he does not quite wish to define a universal Puritan hypocrisy as the prayers to God of people who actually serve the Devil. But he is still being rather too easily ironical about his worthy forebears. And if he is, in the next moment, truly amazed to hear the Devil claim such an impressively general acquaintance among the important personages of New England, still he responds less by doubting or discounting the Devil's claim to near-sovereignty than by writing it off as irrelevant to his own moral condition: “Howbeit, I have nothing to do with the council; they have their own ways, and are no rule for a simple husbandman like me” (93). This social deference might be a species of humility; except that Goody Cloyse, with whom his moral connection has been direct and important, whose “rule” has been quite literally his own rule, can be dismissed just as easily: “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?” (96).

Now clearly all of Goodman Brown's responses are still too easy. Even before the Devil has introduced his most convincing, most visible evidence; even when it is all a matter of mere rumor, Goodman Brown has been quite willing to accept the Devil's “doubtful” informations at something like their face value; he believes their truth and merely denies their relevance. At one level, of course, this mental operation is merely an extension of his initial bad faith in relation to his wife; at another, however, it seems to adumbrate the implications of some sort of belief in “limited atonement.” Brown's habitual, doctrinally ingrained sense of the relative fewness of the visibly elect is growing more and more keen. Firmly possessed of the distinction between the inner circle of proven saints and all outer circles of the many “others,” he seems willing to reduce the circumference of that inmost circle almost to its single-point limit. I and my Faith: it all comes down to that naive center. But since he has already deceived and abandoned his wife (and, in doing so, vitiated his faith through presumption), even this two-term protestation rings false. The Devil really has not very much difficulty with this Easy-Faith of a Young Goodman Brown. “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (98), so our self-assured young man roundly declaims, after consigning the rest of his world to perdition. But a murmur of spectral voices and a flutter of spectral ribbons later and his “Faith is gone.” It could hardly have turned out otherwise.

And yet the swiftness and seeming inevitability of Goodman Brown's reduction to despair depend for their believability on more than his naive and presumptuous understanding of faith as a sort of private haven. “Young Goodman Brown” is, no less than “Rappaccini's Daughter,” a story about Faith and Evidence; and so there is also, just as crucially, the question of his evidences to be considered. Explicitly, of course, Hawthorne raises the question only at the very end of the story, and then in a completely non-technical way: “Had Young Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting”? (105). Was his evidence, therefore, only “subjective,” a species of that diseased fantasy to which the nineteenth century universally ascribed the witchcraft “delusions”? As David Levin has amply and carefully shown, however, the evidence or “reality” question is built into the story everywhere in a very precise seventeenth-century way. Not only are we apprised from the outset that Goodman Brown is speaking to the Father of Lies, so that scandalous rumor and innuendo may be even less trustworthy than usual, even in a notoriously quarrelsome Puritan small town; but everywhere the persons seen by Brown are referred to as “shapes” or “figures” or “appearances.” People appear and disappear in the most magical sorts of ways, and no one is substantial enough to cast a shadow. It is all, quite demonstrably, a technical case of specter evidence. And this is precisely why Hawthorne's seemingly casual answer to the dream-or-not question (“Be it so if you will”) is neither a coy evasion nor a profound “ambiguity.” It simply does not matter: obviously not in terms of practical consequences, since the psycho-moral response is certain and terrible, whatever the nature of the stimulus; and not in terms of epistemological assumptions either, since the choice lies (as Levin put it) “between a dream and a reality that is unquestionably spectral.”

It is really distressing to see a critic claim that Levin has tried to make all the stories' challenging moral problems go away by blaming everything on “infernal powers”; and that, really, Goodman Brown's “‘visions’ are the product of his suspicion and distrust, not the Devil's wiles.” The point is surely that in Hawthorne's psychological schema Brown's suspicion and distrust and the Devil's wiles are not different.20

Hawthorne “believed in” the Devil even less than did Spenser, who had long before deliberately conflated Archimago's magic powers with the Red Cross Knight's suppressed desires; and as Hawthorne conned the lesson of Spenser's faith-protagonist, and then defined the problem in “Alice Doane's Appeal,” specter evidence became nothing but the necessary historical “figure” for guilty, projective dreams or fantasies. “Literally,” in the seventeenth century, Brown “sees specters” that seem to reveal the diabolical commitment of the persons to whom they belong; but this seeming is highly untrustworthy, and Brown's inferences are illegitimate. “Allegorically,” as we interpret Brown's twilight or limit-experiences; as we try, with Hawthorne, to imagine what sort of reality might lie behind the widespread but ultimately superstitious belief that people have detachable specters which may or may not require a pact with the Devil to detach, we can only conclude that specter evidence is projective fantasy.21

Once again, as so often is the case in a Hawthorne “allegory,” history itself provided the “figurative” term: specter evidence was simply there, a given; Hawthorne had merely to imagine what it really (psychologically and morally) meant. And if we really understand this perfectly historical but almost antiallegorical process, we can see how fundamentally wrongheaded is the assumption that Hawthorne merely “used history” as costume or as convenient setting for his timeless themes. Hawthorne's problem in “Young Goodman Brown” was not to find an appropriate historical delusion which might validly enfigure Man's persistent tendency to project his own moral uneasiness onto others; it was, rather, to discover the sorts of reality (some of them transient, some of them permanent) which made the belief in specter evidence possible at any point in human experience. As is the case with “The Gentle Boy,” “Young Goodman Brown” is primarily a moment in which there is brought to bear on an actual, complex historical situation all the imaginative sympathy and psychological acumen at the command of the artist. That, I think, we are constrained to call history as history. It is good history because the artist in question was one who constantly monitored his own, and speculated about all other mental life.

The doctrine of specters as a specific form of superstition is actually not very complicated, though the story is immeasurably enriched for the reader who is familiar with the witchcraft sources, and who can thus sense the full historic reality of Goodman Brown's problem as a classic case of seventeenth-century religious epistemology. Perhaps we need not linger over all the wonderful ramifications of the problem about whether God would or would not permit Satan to manipulate the spectral form of a person who had not entered the Devil's own covenant. The arguments are inexhaustibly fascinating.22 On the one hand if Satan can do such things, wouldn’t this constitute a rather drastic lacuna in the Providential order? If the observance of someone in diabolical settings or activities might or might not really indicate his adherence to the Devil's party, would not appearance and reality have come so far apart as to make the whole moral world illusory? What, more especially, would be the significance of that ever-so-watchful moral surveillance so characteristic of the covenanted community? What could you believe? Whom could you trust? But on the other hand—and Cotton Mather himself said it all—the scripture doctrine is clear: “the Devil has often been transformed into an angel of light.” And so, who could assert with assurance that, as some sort of ultimate Faith-test for a special people, a royal priesthood set apart, God would not permit Satan to impersonate saints so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect? But if the ramifications are teasing, still the crux is simple. To imagine the epistemological heart of Goodman Brown's problem, Hawthorne probably needed no more than a single interrogative suggestion from Increase Mather's Illustrious Providences: “Suppose the devil saith, these people are witches, must the just, therefore, condemn them?”23

Mather is speaking, literally, of vulgar, “white-magic” sorts of witch-detection (such as the water test), which he condemns as using the Devil's own means to detect the Devil; and Brown is not quite the sort of “judge” Mather probably had in mind. Still, his question covers the matter of spectral activity as well: the appearance of a person's specter is, in precise fact, the devil's ocular claim that the person thus spectrally represented is indeed a member of his own desperate anticovenant. And it is hard to imagine a clearer posing of the question which faces Goodman Brown. Whether we are thinking of the Devil's verbal slanders, or the spectral sounds and sights of the forest, or those famous now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t pink ribbons, the case is essentially the same. For granting that the Devil is, from time to time, permitted to impersonate saints without their consent; and granting that in these days of his last desperate assault against the purity of Faith in the New World he would do so if ever he could; then, “literally,” there is no evidential difference between the Devil's general and urbane innuendoes about all the Great and Holy of New England and Goodman Brown's actually “seeing” Goody Cloyse, or Deacon Gookin, or his parents, or Faith, with or without her ribbons. Nasty small-town rumor, simplistic tricks of “materialization” such as even Pharaoh's Magi could perform, spectral simulation: in all these instances, Goodman Brown's vaunted “insights” into Mankind's Total and Unredeemed Depravity depend on a diabolical communication.

Such informations would be scanned. A less technical case did not turn out well for Young Nobleman Hamlet: things were rotten enough in Denmark, one discovers, but man's ghost-bidden (and oedipally anxious) revenge did not exactly accomplish God's Justice. And the case of Brown's direct spiritual ancestor is even more instructive: the instinctive “jealousy” Spenser's Red Cross Knight feels when he beholds the Spectral Una disporting in lewd amours with a Spectral Squire suggests that even the Arch-Magician's specters embody little more than suppressed suspicion or repressed desire.24 Hawthorne is too sympathetic a moral historian to imply, flatly, that “He who believes in the Devil, already belongs to Him”; but “Young Goodman Brown” exists to suggest that any belief, whether literal or allegoric, in the Devil's account of the moral world represents a culpable degree of credulity. If you want the Devil's views, you must go to meet him. But if you do this, you are already on dubious ground at best; you might well expect the worst. And so, Goodman Brown's spectral intimations of Depravity are merely the seamy psychological underside of his initial naivete and (even more) of his initial bad faith.25

Probably, if we find such speculations interesting, the Devil is telling the truth when he implicates Brown's ancestors in persecution and sadistic cruelty: these are, after all, the sins of Hawthorne's own fathers, and of the fathers of many others among his historically naive generation; doubtless the Father of Lies is well practiced in the meretricious rhetorical art of universalizing the Half Truth. Probably the Devil exaggerates when he claims that nearly all of the deacons, selectmen, and general court representatives in New England owe him their covenanted allegiance. (Hawthorne would have been, I imagine, less disturbed than some liberal modern historians to learn that, for all the historian can discover, there was indeed some real enough witchcraft at the bottom of the Salem hysteria; but his statistical reservations about the size of Satan's consciously enlisted army would have been as wary as his doctrinal reservations about the Totality of human depravity.) And presumably the Devil's use of the specific “specters” of Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and Faith is pure deceit: he conjures their shapes without their contractual permission in order to test (destroy, as it lamentably turns out) the naive and compromised faith of Goodman Brown. A cheap trick, perhaps, but not without a certain diabolical cleverness; and not, in this case, ineffective. Young Calvinist Brown may think that Faith is “inamissable,” that the final perseverance of the Elect is certain and “indefectable.” But Satan evidently knows better: even fully communing Saints can be had. Or, if the Calvinist Fathers of Dort were correct, if the gracious gift of a true faith cannot indeed be lost, then at least there is the diabolical pleasure of hazing the “presumptive” saint whose faith only seemed true and whose salvation was all too easily assumed. In any case, the extreme result of this new communicant's presumptive bad faith is his willingness to accept spectral (whether diabolical or traumatic) intimations of evil as more authoritative than the ordinary social appearances of goodness.


Once we realize how fundamentally Goodman Brown's moral discoveries depend on the spirit (and the place) in which he asks his questions, we are inevitably led to wonder about the validity of the questions themselves. Clearly it is “impertinent” (in Levin's language) to ask whether the people represented to Brown in the forest are “really” evil: questions concerning the nature and extent of human depravity may not, in themselves, lie “beyond the limits of fiction”; but surely the true, ultimate condition of Goody Cloyse is a question whose answer lies beyond the proper limits of this story, which is “not about the evil of other people but about Brown's doubt, his discovery of the possibility of universal evil.”26 And there is reason to believe, further, that certain forms of the depravity-question are themselves illegitimate. Posed in certain terms, they may be the Devil's own questions.

From Hawthorne's frankly Arminian, though by no means Pelagian, point of view, Goodman Brown is habitually making simple judgments about settled moral realities in a world where only the most flickering sorts of appearances are available as evidence. And he is asking about spiritual “essences” where probably only a process exists. In one very important sense the private evidence of the forest is no more “spectral” than was all the previous communal evidence in favor of the saintliness of the now-exposed hypocrites. Hawthorne repeatedly joked about the separation between his own real and spectral selves; and as the author of “The Christmas Banquet” he perfectly agreed with the Emersonian dictum that “souls never touch.” Further, he made it unmistakably clear in “Fancy's Show Box” (which ought to be read as a gloss on “Young Goodman Brown,” revealing Hawthorne's own doctrine of depravity) that stains upon the soul are simply not visible. Moral or spiritual status is, accordingly, an invincibly interior and a radically invisible quality. Any outward representation of a person's absolutely private moral intentionality, of his voluntary allegiance to God or Satan, of his “state” with reference to the “grace” of “faith” (even if this is not a process of constant, “ambivalent” fluctuation) is a mere simulacrum—a specter.27 Giving the epistemology of Berkeley or Kant a distinctive moral twist (which Jeremy Taylor could have appreciated better than Emerson), Hawthorne means to suggest that all moral knowledge of others exists in us as phenomena, or idea, or appearance merely; the moral essence, like the Lockean substance or the Kantian ding an sich, remains an ignotum x. True, for certain fairly important social uses, we must assume that a person's statements and bodily actions correspond to his own intention, that he and not some devil is in control of his bodily form. But this is only a working premise. It should not be taken as an accurate rendition of Reality. Clearly a religious system which would, rejecting the ironic personal lesson and then the powerfully prophetic teaching of Roger Williams, confuse the compromises imposed by the necessities of worldly order based on appearances with the absolute configurations of the invisible moral world would be running a terrible risk.28

In a sense, therefore, any answer to questions concerning an individual's absolute moral condition will be in terms of spectral evidence. Probably the truth lies with the Arminians and Pragmatists and Existentialists: man makes himself; he has a moral history but no moral essence, not at birth and not by rebirth; his whole life is a journey which may or may not lead to the goal, and a series of choices in which any one choice may undo the moral import (though not, of course, all the psychological results) of any other. The “sides” in such a world would be impossible to define. But even if there were sides, ineluctably defined by ineffable divine decree, who could ever discover them? Accordingly, Goodman Brown's mental organization (and, by implication, the Puritan ecclesiology) dissolves into moral chaos because in every instance he must choose between the show of social appearance and the specter of diabolical simulation and suggestion. In every case evidence counters evidence, where, Hawthorne implies, only faith can be salutary.

The paradigmatic instance of this dilemma quite properly concerns Brown's wife: the test of faith is Faith. Supposing the worst, let us adopt the improbable view that Hawthorne intends the forest experience of Goodman Brown to have the full authority of a sort of “Melvillean” vision of “blackness,” uncomplicated by the epistemological uncertainties inherent in the historical problem of specter evidence or the psychological problem of Brown's bad faith. Even if we should decide that Brown's discoveries are neither the troubled, projective dreams of a man in bad faith nor their literal seventeenth-century equivalent, a show of black magic put on by the Devil for Brown's private “benefit”; that is, even if everything he sees and hears in the forest is unequivocally asserted by Hawthorne himself to be “true”—his ancestors, his moral perceptors and models, and virtually all other New England saints are consciously and voluntarily in league with the Devil; even granting all this, we are still forced by the logic of the tale to make an exception for Faith. Again, grant that it was her literal voice from the cloud which obscured Brown's view of, and seemed to obliterate his belief in heaven; that her real and not spectral ribbons floated down to crush her husband's spirit; that she was really there, with Goodman Brown's parents, physically, transported to an actual blasphemous witch-meeting; still we come to a cardinal uncertainty (“ambiguity,” if you will) which cannot be resolved except by faith—either a gracious and charitable decision to believe the best or, alternately, an extreme of pernicious credulity. We know that Goodman Brown's own protracted dalliance ends in revulsion, expressed in his agonized plea that Faith “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one” (105). This plea, we must presume, constitutes his own last-second refusal to accept an unholy baptism and communion: in spite of his earlier blasphemies, he seems to draw back at the last moral instant. But “whether Faith obeyed” his plea, we, like Goodman Brown can never know with certainty. In the structurally climactic, epistemologically paradigmatic, and (for Goodman Brown) emotionally crucial instance, there is, evidentially, only uncertainty.

Ultimately, evidence fails. Finally, in a way Goodman Brown had little expected and is totally unprepared to accept or even comprehend, everything does depend on Faith. The individual can judge his own moral case. Imperfectly, no doubt, but with some legitimacy; for besides the Searcher of Hearts only he has access to the evidence of his own intentions, which are (according to Jeremy Taylor) related to his words and actions as the soul to the body. In every other case, moral judgment is irreducibly a species of faith. Morally speaking, we can observe specters flirting with the Devil, but (even if such a thing is possible), we cannot observe a soul fix itself in an evil state.

That certain people in a Puritan world might wish so to fix themselves, we can easily imagine: the case recorded by Winthrop, of the woman who murdered her child so that she could now be “sure she would be damned,” is full of terrible instruction; and doubtless there were many more unrecorded cases of persons for whom “a guilty identity was better than none.”29 Especially in the latter days of Puritanism, when so many people lived out whole lives of spiritual tension in a half-way status, the temptations must have been both strong and various: simply to get the whole business settled; or manfully to accept the highly probable import of one's unremitting sinfulness (and perhaps to enjoy some sense of true significance in this world); or even to join the Devil's party out of sheer rebellion against such singularly infelicitous figures of Covenant authority as Cotton Mather. Thus for every village hag who practiced some crude form of image magic or evil eye to frighten her neighbors into a frenzy of self-destruction, there must have been dozens of more robust souls who saw their appropriate moral hypothesis quite clearly: “If I am the devil's child, I will live then from the devil.” But obviously such intentions are reversible: above all else the Puritans tried to obtain repentant confessions from accused witches, to bring them back from the Deviant to the Normative Covenant. This might strain their predestinarian logic, but not perhaps unduly. One could be as wrong about one's reprobation as about one's election: in either theological case, one “consented” but did not, himself, make the really efficacious choice; and in psychological practice, a wild, desperate, overly wilful embracing of unconditional and irrevocable reprobation is probably no easier to protect from doubt or change of mood than the astonished and relieved acceptance of one's election. Certainly Goodman Brown ultimately draws back—from one of the most blasphemous declarations of despair in all literature.

But this is getting slightly ahead of the immediate question, which concerns the relation of faith and evidence to the serious moral judgement of others. The question put so directly and so unavoidably to the theologically ill-prepared Goodman Brown at the climax of his forest-experience is, quite simply, Hawthorne's version of the faith-question in its human dimension: in the face of the final breakdown of all reliable evidence concerning the hidden but defining essence of moral decisions or continuing “heart” intentions of others, which are you more prepared to believe in, goodness or badness? Much critical ink has been spilled over the angst of Goodman Brown's wracking doubt, his ambivalence, his inability finally to settle his belief one way or the other; and in an ultimate sense, of course, it is true that Brown does not hold a fixed and final conviction that his wife is in league with the devil. But practically there is not much question. Hawthorne did not need the will-to-believe analysis of William James to tell him that theoretical doubts have a way of solving themselves in practice, in accordance with the individual's deepest suspicions: and at this level Brown's ideas are quite clear. He hears an “anthem of sin” when the congregation sings a holy psalm; he scowls while his family prays; he shrinks at midnight from the bosom of Faith; and he dies in an aura which even Puritans recognize as one of inordinate moral gloom.

To be sure, he does not die in precisely the same state of “despair” that sent him raging through the forest, challenging the Devil, burning to meet him on his own ground. At that moment his despair is universal: “there is no good on earth; and sin is but a name.” At that moment it includes himself; indeed it applies to himself preeminently: “Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you” (99). At that moment only does the element of hesitancy (or as one recent critic rightly insists, “ambivalence”) disappear from his mental state; and as it disappears Brown becomes guilty not only of some sort of cosmic blasphemy but also of that personal and technical sort of “despair” which, in its utter abandonment of the possibility of personal redemption, constitutes the second of traditional Christianity's two unpardonable sins—the other, its obverse, being the presumption with which Brown began. But as we have said, this lurid, melodramatic phase subsides: his call upon Faith to “resist” is, in part, his way of taking back his own overly wilful self-abandonment.30 And thus, as he was initially not entirely certain he wanted to sneak off into the forest at all, so he is finally not convinced that he himself is a lost soul. Nevertheless neither his crucial refusal of baptism nor his returning ambivalence can now save him from some sort of moral gloom for which there may be no neatly prepared theological name, but which the story exists to define. Indeed Goodman Brown's final (exorcised) state may be his worst of all.

Having begun by assuming that all visible sanctity was real sanctity, and by presuming his own final perseverance in faith; having next despaired of all goodness; he ends by doubting the existence of any ultimate goodness but his own. There is, it seems to me, no other way to account for the way Goodman Brown spends the rest of his life. Evidently he clings to the precious knowledge that he, at least, resisted the wicked one's final invitation to diabolical communion; accordingly, the lurid satisfactions of Satan's anti-Covenant are not available to him. But neither are the sweet delights of the Communion of Saints. He knows he resisted the “last, last crime” of witchcraft, but his deepest suspicion seems to be that Faith did not resist. Or if that seems too strong a formulation for sentimental readers, he cannot make his faith in Faith prevail. Without such a prevailing faith, he is left outside the bounds of all communion: his own unbartered soul is the only certain locus of goodness in a world otherwise altogether blasted.31

It would be easy enough to praise Young Goodman Brown for his recovery from the blasphemous nihilism of his mid-forest rage against the universe; for his refusal to translate his cosmic paranoia into an Ahabian plan of counterattack. Or, from another point of view, it would even be possible to suggest that if the Devil's proffered community of evil is the only community possible, perhaps he should have accepted membership instead of protecting the insular sacredness of his own separate and too precious soul. Perhaps salvation is not worth having—perhaps it is meaningless—in a universe where depravity has undone so many. But both of these moral prescriptions miss Hawthorne's principal emphasis which, as I read the tale, is on the problem of faith and evidence; on that peculiar kind of “doubt” (in epistemological essence, really a kind of negative faith) which follows from a discrediting of evidences formerly trusted. Brown is damned to stony moral isolation because his “evidential” Puritan biases have led him all unprepared into a terrifying betrayal of Faith. He believes the Devil's spectral suggestions not merely because he is naive, though he is that; and not merely because he is incapable of the sort of evidential subtlety by which John Cotton instructed the very first members of those newly purified New England churches in the art of separating sheep and goats, or by which the Mathers sermonized the court of oyer and terminer on the occult art of the distinguishing of spirits.32 Brown believes the Devil because, at one level, the projected guilt of a man in bad faith is specter evidence and because, even more fundamentally, absolute moral quality is related to outward appearance as a real person is to his specter.

In short, Hawthorne suggests, one had better not raise such ultimate questions at all: to do so is to risk the appearance-and-reality question in its most pernicious form. At best one would be accepting the deceptive appearances of sanctity, as Goodman Brown evidently continued to be accepted at the communion table of a community which never suspected his presumption, despair, blasphemy and his near approach to witchcraft; or as the representative Mr. Smith of “Fancy's Show Box” is, in later times, accepted as a paragon in spite of his impressive list of sinful intentions. And at worst, if one is already in bad faith, his penetrating glimpses into the “reality” behind the appearances will be no more than spectral projections of his own guilty wishes; such are the evidences Goodman Brown accepts no less clearly than Leonard Doane or Spenser's Red Cross Knight. The truly naive will simply accept the smiling light of daytime, church-day appearances; the already compromised will “see” in others (as irrevocable commitment) what already preexists in themselves (as fantasy, wish, desire, or intention). The only alternative would seem to be the acceptance of some ultimate and fundamental equality in a common moral struggle; a healthy skepticism about all moral appearances, firmly wedded to the faith that, whatever men may fantasize, or however they may fall, they generally love the good and hate the evil.

That such standards will suffice for all judgements except perhaps the Last, Roger Williams, Solomon Stoddard, and various Arminians variously tried to suggest, as against the main thrust of the New England Way.33 What none of them could quite say, but what Hawthorne quite clearly saw the witchcraft “delusion” to prove, is that beyond this sort of moral and epistemological humility lie only varieties of specter evidence. And these, ironically, turn out to be species of perverted faith after all.

For finally, once Goodman Brown's search for evidences has ended in nightmare, his enduring doubt and suspicion prove to be only an abiding “faith” in the probability of evil. Lacking conclusive evidence, he yet suspects—“believes,” I think we may say—the worst of Faith. His doubt of goodness is equally a faith in evil. The Judgement of Charity (which the wariest of the Puritans always insisted was the proper rule in estimating the presence of grace and by which they almost undid their basic premises)34 might construe even Faith's actual presence in the forest in some lenient way; charity ought to be willing to believe that a wife would refuse a Devil at least as soon as a husband would. But bad faith precludes such charity. What determines Brown's practical disbelief in Faith and in all “other” goodness is the subconscious effort of his own dark (if ambivalent) reasons for being in the forest, reinforced no doubt by the violence of his blasphemous nihilism; the total personality, it turns out, is less supple and flexible than the “will.” Brown's initial easy-faith in his own election, which makes everything else possible, is based on the evidence of his acceptance (finally!) into a community of professing, visible saints. His final gloomy-faith in the reprobation of the rest of his world is based on the suppression and outward projection of his own continuing fallenness. Goodman Brown believes the Devil's spectral evidence because ultimately it coincides with his own guilty projections; indeed the “levels” of the “allegory” collapse so perfectly that the spectral evidence produced by the Devil's most potent magic becomes indistinguishable from the bad dream of a man in bad faith. Goodman Brown's supposedly “inamissable” faith has, to paraphrase Poe, indeed “flown away.” And whether “In a vision, or in none, / Is it therefore the less gone?” The note of finality seems cruel, but so, apparently, are the pitfalls of visible sanctity for a Young Calvinist Saint.


Hawthorne will return to the question of faith and evidence, most significantly in “Rappaccini's Daughter” at the climax of his second or “Old Manse” period. There the “vile empiric” will turn out to be not any scientific experimenter or positivist, but the Brown-like Giovanni Guasconti, who loses his Dantesque Beatrice for many of the same reasons Goodman Brown loses his Spenserian Faith. By then, Hawthorne's fictional arguments will have caught up with contemporaneous religious questions; in the case of “Rappaccini's Daughter,” with the “miracles controversy” raging three-sidedly among Calvinists, Unitarians, and Transcendentalists, and with the universal problem of the fate of “historical Christianity” of which that controversy is a part.35 But in the early and middle 1830's, Hawthorne is not yet writing “The History of His Own Time.” His outlook is still dominated, and his most serious concerns are still unified, by his wide and perceptive readings in seventeenth-century Puritanism; the subjects of his most penetrating analyses are still Puritans trapped by the moral definitions of their historical world. As with “The Gentle Boy,” “Young Goodman Brown” unarguably demonstrates that (however we choose to define “history as history”) Hawthorne's most powerful early stories grew directly out of an authentic and creative encounter with the Puritan mind.

The neo-Puritan Calvinism of Hawthorne's own nineteenth-century world was, despite its fairly widespread continuance of the structures begun with the Half-Way Covenant of 1662, not obsessively concerned with the attempt to unite the visible church with the invisible. Most local New England religious communities were still divided into “the church” (of converted saints) and “the congregation” (of hopeful, or interested, or habitual service-attenders); often the line divided families in half, or even into more disproportionate fractions; but the explosive potential seemed to be going out of such divisions. Despite the undeniable effect of successive waves of revival enthusiasm which stressed the saving (and normative) importance of a converting “Christian experience,” New England seemed to be on its way to learning the lesson summarized so succinctly, much later, by the heroine of Harold Fredric's most Hawthornean novel: “The sheep and the goats are to be separated on Judgment Day, but not the minute sooner. In other words, as long as human life lasts, good, bad and indifferent are all braided up together in every man's nature, and every woman's too.”36 Hawthorne was, no doubt, helping to teach or to reinforce that lesson, along with everyone else involved in any way with “the moral argument against Calvinism.” But it was a lesson already pretty well learned in practice, if not a doctrine settled in theory. And it would be doing Hawthorne no essential service to assert this sort of historical “relevance” as one of the chief claims to greatness of “Young Goodman Brown.”

“Young Goodman Brown” is, nevertheless, a dazzling achievement of the historical imagination, and its greatness cannot be accounted for without close and continuous reference to its insight into the psychology of religion in New England, especially in its most “troubled” period. From one point of view, “Young Goodman Brown” may well be “Freud Anticipated”; from another it unquestionably is “Spenser Applied.” But it applies the Spenserian teaching to New England's problems of spectral evidence and visible sanctity as certainly and as precisely as “The Maypole of Merrymount” applies the Miltonic doctrines of mythic innocence and historic fall to the problem of America's imaginative (and political) state; or, later, as surely as “The Celestial Railroad” would apply Bunyan; or “Rappaccini's Daughter,” Dante; or “Ethan Brand,” Goethe, to problems which had a specific American context and quiddity. And if “Young Goodman Brown” is one of Hawthorne's more stunning anticipations of Freudian themes, it discovers these themes in the historical record, not only in the painfully obvious testimony of men who were lewdly tempted at night by the “specter” of the local prostitute, but also in that painfully distressing record of the moral identity crisis which two generations of Saints had inevitably if inadvertently prepared for a third. Granted the “enthusiastic” decision of the 1630's to depart from all previous Reformation practice and require virtual “proof” of sainthood for full membership in Congregations of Visible Saints; and granted the existence of scores of diaries and spiritual autobiographies from the first and second generations of New England saints, documents written “Of Providence, For Posterity,” solemnly charging the son “to know and love the great and most high god … of his father”; granted these, the piteous and fearful experience of Puritanism's third generation was indeed inevitable.37 And Hawthorne has enfigured it all, with classic economy and without misplaced romantic sympathy, in the tragic career of Young Goodman Brown.

First of all, Hawthorne has completely elided the sentimental question of “persecuted innocence” which, as Michael Bell has shown, so obsessed the popular romancers who dealt with the episode of 1692. Furthermore, he has gone beyond all naive versions of the question of witchcraft “guilt”—individual or collective, unique or commonplace, original or actual, self-limiting or transmitted—which troubled those of his more professionally historical contemporaries who knew or cared enough to consider the problem, and with which he himself wrestled somewhat clumsily (if honestly) in the beginning and end of “Alice Doane's Appeal.”38 In this, though not in every instance, Hawthorne is a writer of psycho-historical fiction; as such, and with the full authority of Scott behind him, he has gone straight to the task of creating a doctrinally adequate and dramatically believable version of “how it might have felt” to live in the moral climate of Puritanism's most troubled years. The imaginative insight which lies behind “Young Goodman Brown” may stand as a significant part of Hawthorne's reasons for being so “fervently” glad to have been born beyond the temporal limits of the Puritan world. Hawthorne was, to be sure, far from unique in preferring the moral climate of the 1830's to that of the 1690's: perhaps only a minority of his readers (in Boston, or Salem, or Concord at least) really felt that America had declined, even from the best qualities of the noblest figures of the first generation of Puritan Fathers; and, less tendentiously, it would imply no very impressive moral or political virtue to prefer the liberal utterances of William Ellery Channing to the jeremiad rhetoric of The Spirit of the Pilgrims. But no one else in Hawthorne's generation was able to dramatize with such compelling clarity, and with so firm a grasp of the psychological implications of doctrine, what the older system might have meant to a representative individual conscience.39 And beyond this achievement of history as psychological vivification, there is the brilliant hypothesis by which Hawthorne has offered Goodman Brown's representative encounters with the spectral world as a comment on the meaning of witchcraft in the specific context of latter-day Puritan experience.

Except for those who have set out to blacken the Puritans by cliché and oversimplification, most modern commentators are at pains to prove that there is no operable or intelligible connection between New England's Puritanism and its problems with witchcraft. The American Puritans, it has been tediously reiterated, executed fewer witches and gave over the whole enterprise of witch-hunting sooner than enlightened men and practicing Christians elsewhere. The whole accumulated bulk of such arguments, I think, would not have impressed Hawthorne. He heard the argument, at its source, from Charles Upham in 1831; and while he may have appreciated it as a subtler response than that of the romancers (who kept insisting that the persecution of supposed witches was simply the most horrendous form of Puritanism's hysterical intolerance), he seems to have seen that it combined two questions which must be kept distinct. For to establish that, up to a certain point in human history, everybody believed in and, from time to time, hunted witches is not quite to demonstrate that the belief in witchcraft, or the impulse to become a witch, or the need to expose and punish this form of deviancy has had, in all times and all places, precisely the same meaning.40 Perhaps we could admit, a priori, that, deep down at its psychic source, all witchcraft is the same witchcraft—just as, presumably, all oedipal strife or all anal fixation reveals a single, boring morphology. But, obviously, that is not the only sort of “meaning” witchcraft might have. There remains the question of witchcraft as an event in intellectual history: what do various witches, witch-hunters, and skeptical critics have to say about the meaning of their actions? Such declarations might be a species of rationalization, either cheap or elegant; but people do put constructions on the most elemental responses; they do strive to find names for and thus make intelligible to themselves even those actions to which they are driven by their most unopposable “drives.” And in this sense, New England witchcraft has its own fairly unique meaning.

Certainly the everyone-did-it arguments would have astonished those men who wrote about witchcraft in New England between 1684 and 1705, including those who either attacked or defended the proceedings of 1692. Not one of them could doubt that what was happening was directly connected with New England's existence as a covenanted community of proven saints, a saving remnant against which the powers of darkness were most likely to be arrayed; at very least, what was happening had to do with certain people's vision of New England in these terms.41 In a sense it is our very historical sophistication which is likely to mislead us here: the fact that “such things happened everywhere,” and the discovery that, therefore, the Puritans were by our enlightened standards “no worse” than anyone else, is likely to blind us to the unique meanings witchcraft may have had in a (still) fairly unique Puritan world. Hawthorne is not so blinded. His suggestion is that, whatever might be the meaning of witchcraft elsewhere, in New England in 1692 it is not to be considered apart from the larger problem that Puritan Sons were having in trying to keep the outlines of the moral world as clear as they had been in the minds of those Puritan Fathers who first defined the community's project of salvation.

The reader of “Young Goodman Brown” needs to keep constantly in mind the first theological premises and the latter-day ecclesiological practices of the Puritan economy of salvation. For the Puritan, salvation “by faith” was in a sense “voluntary,” but it was by no means a free option depending critically on the originating impulse of man; rather it was an event which the human will might or might not experience, according to the hidden “Pleasure” (or, for the more rationally inclined, the “Wisdom”) of God. But if the “Reason” of the Divine Decrees lay hidden in His mysterious and transcendent essence, the results of those decrees were a good deal more clear; no Puritan could understand why he was elected while still a sinner and in spite of his sinfulness, but none was allowed to remain ignorant of what followed if indeed he were so elected; and, in the seventeenth century, at least, it was the rare congregation which permitted the spiritually unsure to relax into a state of settled neutrality on the question of regenerating experience. After all sorts of appropriate distinctions had been made and a range of individual differences allowed for, the Puritan system (defined by 1636 and not essentially compromised in 1662) depended radically on the Church's fairly sound ability to determine who was and who was not elect of God. On all necessary occasions the Puritan apologist could, of course, argue that “visible sanctity” meant no more than sanctity insofar as that mysterious quality could ever be visible—that is, relatively and not absolutely, with human approximation rather than divine certitude. But in the end, as Hawthorne seemed to know, the defining essence of American Puritanism, socially considered, is its rather confident attempt to locate by profession, institutionalize by Covenant, and monitor by discipline Christian experience as such.42 No modest ambition this.

Small wonder, then, if such a group begins its witchcraft investigations with sufficient confidence in its ability to identify witches, those actively hostile anti-saints. If a people is accustomed to sift the relatively delicate evidence that constituted the rainbow-like shadings of the conversion experience, from the inconclusively preparatory to the definitively sanctified, surely the distinguishing of witches would prove a simple matter by comparison. Evidentially speaking, depravity should immediately expose itself by its very lurid and melodramatic colorings. And, once the problem was fairly raised and widely discussed, the Puritan system seemed to depend as essentially on the institutional identification of witches as of saints: not only psychologically or sociologically, as a certain style of normative behavior may seem to require and create an appropriate deviancy in mirror image of itself; but also as a confirmation of the epistemology which underlay orthodoxy and a guarantee of the logic which confirmed identity. If the Mathers (and all others who opposed the heretical innovations of Solomon Stoddard) were correct, the New Englanders were God's Chosen Saints, or they were Nobody. It was precisely because they were saints, organized and mobilized as such, that they were now being exposed to a plague of witches. If witch-identity could not be confirmed, then how could their own? And hence the “Several Ministers Consulted” might well call for “speedy and vigorous prosecution” in spite of their own clear warnings about the Devil's undoubted ability to appear “in the Shape of an innocent, yea, and a virtuous Man.”43

One had always been warned about hypocrites in the Church, and one was moderately well prepared to grant the presence within the holy community of a few people who were simply wrong about their conversion. With less equanimity, perhaps, one could even accustom oneself to the bold reprobate who simulated grace for social advantage. Such cases simply indicated the practical “limits” toward which the theory of visible sanctity could only approximate. But what if it should prove utterly impossible to detect a witch? What if, in a given case, all the available evidence made it impossible to decide whether a given person belonged to God's Covenant or the Devil's Party? Then, presumably, one had reached the inevitable outer limit of one's world, and, if the question of Saint or Witch seemed vital, the reduction to absurdity of one's fundamental premises. Then, presumably, was it time to give over the whole attempt to make church-exclusions based on “visible” moral distinctions and return, in some manner, to a more lax Presbyterian system (not to say “free and catholic spirit”) of including everyone who was willing to announce his intention to do good and avoid evil. This could mean “Stoddardism,” but that was not the only alternative. It had to mean a recognition that Augustine was right after all: there is, on earth, no way to identify the invisible church with the visible. And it also created a strong presumption in favor of Roger Williams' rather than John Cotton's reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares.44

In this ultimate context, what “Young Goodman Brown” dramatizes is the final failure of all “visible” (or any humanly “outerable”) moral evidence. To the explicit destruction of Goodman Brown, and to the implicit confounding of the Puritan system, “Young Goodman Brown” takes up where the carefully controlled, even exasperatedly technical definitions of “Alice Doane's Appeal” leave off: it lets us watch a representative latter-day Puritan fail the ultimate test of faith and undergo moral self-destruction precisely when it becomes impossible to tell whether his wife is a saint or a witch.

Brown's enduring suspicion of his whole world, but especially of his wife, gives us a quiet and reduced version of that melodramatic moment of madness Hawthorne describes in “Main Street,” when “among the multitude … there is horror, fear, and distrust; and friend looks askance at friend, and the husband at his wife, and even the mother at her little child.” There, as Hawthorne tries to be a fairly “regular historian” of the public frenzy of 1692, the problem is that “in every creature God has made, they suspected a witch, or dreaded an accuser” (III, 471). But here, as we have said, the public frenzy and the courtroom accusation are absent; and accordingly, Hawthorne's approach is more radical. No doubt much of the historical record of 1692 is to be explained in terms of spectral deceits not unlike the ones revealed in “Alice Doane's Appeal” and “Young Goodman Brown,” but the ultimate question lies deeper. What Hawthorne suggests is that the “real” breakdown of faith in Salem Village and its “enfigured” loss by Goodman Brown are both the result of Puritanism's ecclesiastical positivism, of its definitive attempt to found a church (and beyond it a state) on the premise that visible sanctity can be made to approximate true sanctity. For Hawthorne, such a system could only end in nightmare: it introduced evidence into a system where only faith could be appropriate and salutary.45

The witchcraft episode provided the logically necessary (if humanly regrettable) test. When in a spectral epiphany you realized you could not tell a saint from a witch, your logical world, by logical necessity, collapsed. When you realized that the Devil's ability to “transform himself into an Angel of Light” could be used one day, by Increase Mather, as an argument against William Stoughton's injudicious use of spectral evidence; and another day, by his son, as a way to discredit an impressive last-second, gallows-hill protestation by George Burroughs; then someone would surely see it had collapsed. Robert Calef may have seen it: his handling of Cotton Mather's behavior at the execution of George Burroughs is extremely skillful and suggestive. And Hawthorne certainly saw it: when a moving profession of faithfulness (such as ordinarily proved necessary and sufficient for admission into Puritanism's Congregational full communion) could be discredited with the same slogan used to warn overly aggressive witch hunters about the insufficient subtlety of their judicial epistemology, then the “dissolution of the world” which Cotton Mather feared had indeed occurred. It is not at all surprising to hear Mather regret ever having to “mention so much as the first letters” of the name of “This G. B.” And it is probably no accident that his initials are also those of Goodman Brown.46 For although “Alice Doane's Appeal” depends on the Burroughs episode more directly than does “Young Goodman Brown,” still the logical contortions into which the case of George Burroughs forced Cotton Mather are built into the career of Goodman Brown.47


In Grandfather's Chair Hawthorne offers May 1692 as the end of the “era of the Puritans.” The event which marks the break is the death of Old Simon Bradstreet, “the sole representative of [the] departed brotherhood” of original-charter governors; after that “Sir William Phips then arrived in Boston with a new charter from King William and a commission to be governor” (IV, 483). Such indeed are the political realities, and so indeed might the story be divided for children. But in a far more fundamental sense, “Young Goodman Brown” shows us that witchcraft “ended” the Puritan world. Its logic of evidence could not stand the test of Faith.

We now know, of course, that it is unhistorical to believe in the idea of a massive popular revulsion against a clerical oligarchy which hurried a well meaning but unsteady populace into a frenzy of suspicion and judicial murder.48 And yet there may be some reason to believe that the events of 1692 really did accelerate a growing disbelief in human ability to chart the invisible world. To be sure, the new charter forbade New England to use proven sainthood as the sole requirement for provincial citizenship; but it may not be altogether wishful to believe that the discoveries made in 1692 about the diabolical subtleties of spiritual evidence—and about the preeminent human need for Faith as a Judgement in Charity—may have hastened the realization that all temporal separations of sheep and goats are premature. If so, then the Puritans' first religious premise would be as intolerable as their first political premise was intolerant. The statistics concerning the desire for full communion just before and just after the events of 1692 are not available. It is clear, however, that the popularity of Stoddard's practice of open communion continued to grow; and that the hegemony of the Mathers was about to be challenged, from within their own sphere of influence, by persons who believed in the premises underlying a church of visible saints even less than did Stoddard. It is probably more than coincidence that one of the founders of the Brattle Street Church, which admitted all baptized persons to full communion and discontinued the tests for specific Christian experience, had written, in 1692, a fairly cogent letter against the basic assumptions of the witchcraft proceedings; and that he seems to have furnished Calef with his materials for More Wonders. And worlds of skeptical faith might fairly be read into Samuel Sewall's recognition of how the truth had eluded his most judicious search in that matter of “doleful witchcraft.”49

But whatever should turn out to be the case in statistical or other “regular” history, the moral historian's view is clear: in bad faith and with a hopelessly inadequate sense of what True Faith might require, Goodman Brown has come to the end of the Puritan moral world; his inevitable moral collapse stands for the process by which the quest for visible sanctity leads unavoidably into the realm of specter evidence. A more authentic, less institutional form of Puritan piety might yet be “revived,” in 1735 or 1740 (or in “The Minister's Black Veil”); the political dynamism of Puritanism might be “reawakened,” in the various moments which make “The Legends of the Province House” bristle with the hostility of Endicott. But the power of “visible sanctity” to organize the American world ended in 1692. And the credibility of the logic by which it proposed to do so disappeared in doubt when Hawthorne's Goodman Brown discovered that only faith could save his Faith from doubt. Without accepting a fundamental change of premises Puritanism could, like Goodman Brown, continue to exist only as “gloom.”


  1. Levin's widely reprinted (and variously revised) article originally appeared as “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” American Literature [AL], 34 (1962). Levin cites with approval the following predecessors: D. M. McKeithan, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Interpretation,” Modern Language Notes, 67 (1952); Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., “The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown,” Modern Language Quarterly [MLQ], 19 (1958); and Paul W. Miller, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Cynicism or Meliorism?,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction [NCF], 14 (1959). He might, it seems to me, also claim some kinship with Thomas E. Connolly's “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism,” AL, 28 (1956). The most direct “answer” to Levin is Paul J. Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” New England Quarterly [NEQ], 37 (1966); in my opinion, Hurley has misunderstood Levin's fundamental point, obscured the issue Levin was trying to clarify, and set criticism of the tale back a few steps. Evidence of this new confusion is Walter Blair's view that Hurley's attack on Levin comes “from a position much closer to McKeithan's and Walsh's than to those of other critics”; see the Revised Edition of Eight American Authors, ed. James Woodress (New York, 1971), p. 127.

    Critics who have grasped and tried to build on Levin's insights include the following: Darrel Abel, “Black Glove and Pink Ribbon: Hawthorne's Metonymic Symbols,” NEQ, 42 (1969); Michael Bell, Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England (Princeton, N.J., 1971); Neal Frank Doubleday, Hawthorne's Early Tales (Durham, N.C., 1972); and B. Bernard Cohen (see note 2). The essential point, as I shall argue later, is that Levin does not trivialize the story by simply blaming everything on supernatural agency; rather, he provides the language to talk about Goodman Brown's epistemological problem, and he shows that “Young Goodman Brown” is about the dynamics of faith rather than the nature and extent of depravity.

  2. See Thomas E. Connolly's “Introduction” to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Young Goodman Brown” (Columbus, 1968), pp. 6-8; B. Bernard Cohen's “Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity and Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Essex Institute Historical Collections, 104 (1968), 349; and Levin's “Shadows,” p. 352. Levin's conclusion, of course, concedes the least to the anti-historicists; and the essays collected in his Defense of Historical Literature (New York, 1967) reveal the full depth and richness of his commitment to historical criticism.

  3. Again, the problem with single-minded, “reductive” psychoanalytic readings of the tale (e.g. that of Frederick C. Crews) is that they very probably reverse vehicle and tenor: it seems likely that Hawthorne intended the figure of Goodman Brown to stand for a representative historical mentality and the tale's psychoanalytic suggestions to be applied to a complex historical case. In any event, it will not do to say that the story is about “escapism”; too much of the historicity so carefully wrought into the vehicle is then simply wasted, and all Hawthorne tales begin to collapse into the same tale. See Frederick C. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers (New York, 1966), esp. pp. 99-106.

  4. See Doubleday, Early Tales, p. 202.

  5. The present essay—a version of a chapter from a book-length study—was written well before the appearance of Bell's Historical Romance. He has, however, anticipated some of my own discussion—not only in trying to build on the insights of Levin, but also in seeing the direct comparability of ADA [“Alice Doane's Appeal”] with YGB [“Young Goodman Brown”] in terms of the theme of specter evidence. And though I quite appreciate what he means when he says that “what is obscured … in ‘Alice Doane's Appeal’ is revealed far more clearly in ‘Young Goodman Brown’” (p. 76), I think the matter is not that simple: there is little genuine “confusion” in ADA; the “sensationalism” is entirely controlled and purposeful; and, really, the revised “Alice Doane” probably exists to make a technical statement about what is going on in YGB and how it works.

  6. All quotations from the story are from the Riverside Edition of The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston, Mass., 1883) and will be identified by page number in the text. References to other Hawthorne works are from the same edition and will be identified by volume and page.

  7. The story never actually tells us what night “of all nights” we are dealing with, but I see no reason to quarrel with the conjecture of Daniel Hoffman; see Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York, 1961), p. 150.

  8. The most explicit comparison is made, with rather too much self-congratulation about originality, by Richard C. Carpenter in “Hawthorne's Polar Explorations,” NCF, 24 (1970). The same sorts of similarities are pressed by Crews and, behind him, Melvin W. Askew and Richard P. Adams; see “Hawthorne, the Fall and the Psychology of Maturity,” AL, 34 (1962), 334-343 and “Hawthorne's Provincial Tales,NEQ, 30 (1957), 39-57.

  9. The earliest article to stress the idea that what happens to Goodman Brown is the result of his own initial sin is that of McKeithan (see note 1). For a reading of the tale in terms of the twin unpardonable sins of Christian tradition, see the unjustly neglected article by Joseph T. McCullen, “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Presumption and Despair,” Discourse, 2 (1959).

  10. See his “Introduction” to “Young Goodman Brown,” p. 8. This “Introduction” is the third of Connolly's contributions to the Goodman Brown debate: the first is cited in note 1; the second—“How Young Goodman Brown Became Old Badman Brown,” College English [CE], 24 (1962)—is conceived as an answer to Robert W. Cochran's “Hawthorne's Choice: The Veil or the Jaundiced Eye,” CE, 23 (1962).

  11. In my view, Hawthorne's ability to write YGB was as fundamentally dependent on his reading of Books Four and Five of the Magnalia—together with Cotton Mather's Parentator—as on any of the proven witchcraft sources, including Mather's own Wonders of the Invisible World. We know, from Kesselring, that Hawthorne read the Magnalia as early as 1827. And we strongly suspect, from the evidence of Grandfather's Chair (IV, 511-514), that it was a book he kept rereading, one that made as deep an impression on his mind as did The Faerie Queene. We also know that Hawthorne read the Parentator very early: he cites it in his early sketch of “Dr. Bullivant” (1831), though a corruption in the Riverside Edition obscures an allusion that is perfectly clear in the original (Salem Gazette) version. The impression of these works would have been augmented by a reading of Daniel Neal's History of New England, which derives from the Magnalia, and Benjamin Trumbull's History of Connecticut which, though written much later, rather “parallels” the Magnalia. But the Magnalia would have been enough: Cotton Mather's diagnosis of and prescriptions for the maladies of the third-generation Puritans would have given Hawthorne all he needed to know about the Half-Way Covenant and its perceived effects on the theory and practice of “visible sanctity.” There, as Perry Miller has suggested, were all the jeremiad themes collected (if not exactly compressed) into one very troubled and very revealing book.

  12. “Revisionist” interpretation of the precise significance of the Half-Way Covenant begins with Chapter Four of Edmund S. Morgan's Visible Saints (New York, 1963). After that moment of clarity, things have once again grown confused, but two other books seem essential: for the theology, Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared (New Haven, Conn., 1966), esp. pp. 158-216; and for the sociology and ecclesiology, Robert G. Pope, The Half-Way Covenant (Princeton, N.J., 1969).

  13. See, for example, Emil Oberholzer, Jr., Delinquent Saints (New York, 1956), pp. 7-12. The idea that the arrangements of 1662 cheapened the concept of visible Puritan sainthood seems to me at least as fundamental an error as the coordinate idea Morgan set out to answer in Visible Saints; namely that the Half-Way Covenant was the prime and unambiguous cause of a real and widespread “declension.”

  14. This, as I have argued elsewhere, is precisely the representative problem faced by Edward Taylor in Gods Determinations Touching His Elect: now that there was some place for the doubtful, it took an extreme of something or other to declare for the status of “visible saint”; see “Gods Determinations Touching Half-Way Membership,” AL, 39 (1967).

  15. The most important fact about the “Bullivant” sketch is precisely that any “literary” effect it may have been intended to have is lost in a welter of carefully qualified generalizations about the where and the when of “declension.” It is obvious that somewhere between “Bullivant” and YGB Hawthorne solved his technical problems by substituting representative dramatic instance for additive sociological generalization; but it cannot be shown that the locus of his historical interest changed very essentially. “Main Street” (1849) would be the other instructive example: it is at once a prosaic summary of the Puritan themes and situations Hawthorne had worked with in the tales written in the 1830's and preparation for a highly poetic treatment of those same materials in The Scarlet Letter. The burden of that sketch is, as Michael Bell has noted, the problem of what the original Puritan ancestors left to their descendants (see Historical Romance, pp. 62-64).

  16. Although James W. Matthews is rather too casual in his suggestion that “A doctrine of one group of Calvinists during the time depicted in the story was Antinomianism,” still his suggestion that Brown's style of reliance on Faith is not quite salutary is well taken; see “Antinomianism in YGB,” Studies in Short Fiction, 3 (1965). Ultimately, this sort of “moral argument against Calvinism” may lie closer to the heart of the story than that stressed by Thomas E. Connolly—namely, the argument that Calvinism is really a religion of sin and damnation.

  17. “Romance and the Study of History,” in Hawthorne Centenary Essays (Columbus, Ohio, 1964), p. 233.

  18. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), p. 135. The last word on the problem of the Puritan “generations” is still far from being uttered. The new demographic studies make the lives of ordinary New Englanders of the third and fourth generations seem less melodramatically lurid than one might gather from Miller's evocation of their lives as ritualistic schizophrenia—regularly confessing the “declension” revealed in those social “sins” which their developing economy and inherited ethic made it impossible for them to avoid. But even the most reassuringly statistical of the new studies cannot entirely avoid raising “oedipal” questions. Only by about 1720 did Puritan sons begin to be significantly free of an original and powerful patriarchalism. See, for example, Philip J. Greven, Four Generations (Ithaca, N.Y., 1970), especially pp. 261-289.

  19. Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, quoted from David Levin, ed., What Happened in Salem? (New York, 1960), p. 102. Mather makes it clear that although witchcraft is indeed the “furthest Effort of our Original Sin” (99), still all are “tempted hereunto” (102). In itself it is a kind of despair, since “All the sure Mercies of the New Covenant … are utterly abdicated” (98). But the way into witchcraft often involves presumption: “Let him that stands, take heed lest he fall” (102).

  20. See Levin, “Shadows,” p. 352; and Hurley, “Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” p. 411.

  21. For a suggestive account of how guilty projection might have worked in the actual, outward world of witch accusations in seventeenth-century New England, see John Demos, “Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England,” American Historical Review, 75 (1970), 1311-1326.

  22. The best way to prepare to read YGB with something approaching adequate historical alertness is to make one's way through G. L. Burr's Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases (New York, 1914) and David Levin's What Happened in Salem? (see note 19). Hawthorne's historical insight also appears to good advantage if compared to that of modern commentators: see, for example, Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, pp. 194-208; Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts (New York, 1949); and, for a revisionist emphasis, Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem (New York, 1969).

  23. An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providence (Boston, 1684), p. 200. The extreme suggestiveness of the Increase Mather sentence and its context is not an argument against the relevance of other sources, particularly Cotton Mather's Wonders. See G. H. Orians, “New England Witchcraft in Fiction,” AL, 2 (1930); Tremaine McDowell, “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Witches of Colonial Salem,” Notes and Queries, 166 (1934); Arlin Turner, “Hawthorne's Literary Borrowings,” PMLA, 51 (1936); and more recently, E. Arthur Robinson, “The Vision of ‘Young Goodman Brown’: A Source and Interpretation,” AL, 35 (1963). I have already suggested that the Magnalia may be as fundamental an influence on YGB as anything else; and the same would hold for the Red Cross Knight and Archimago episode of The Faerie Queene.

  24. Evidently “Alice Doane's Appeal” takes up the Spenserian psychology directly: for Red Cross Knight and Leonard Doane alike, spectral deception is ultimately a form of guilty projection. Though the psychological dynamics are a little subtler in YGB they are essentially the same. In fact it is technically true to assert that the Red Cross Knight and Archimago episode provided the “mythos” for YGB: in both cases a young man who is rather too sure of himself is separated from his one true faith because he believes spectral deceptions which enfigure his own moral obliquity. Book One of The Faerie Queene is thus an even more potent influence on YGB than has yet been recognized: see Randall Stewart, “Hawthorne and The Faerie Queene,Philological Quarterly, 12 (1933), and Herbert A. Leibowitz, “Hawthorne and Spenser: Two Sources,” AL, 30 (1959).

  25. Again Increase Mather's warning seems as much to the point as anything else: “we may not in the least build on the devil's word”; if we do, “the matter is ultimately resolved into a diabolical faith” (Providences, p. 200).

  26. “Shadows of Doubt,” p. 351. As I read Levin's argument, he does not really mean to say that all discussion of the nature and extent of human depravity is beyond the proper limits of all fiction, but only that this story is designed in such a way as to reveal that Goodman Brown (and we ourselves) can never really know the moral essence of others. Nor—contra Hurley—does he really deny that, once we do get beyond the “literal” level, Brown's experiences are “the product of his own fancy with no reality save that supplied by his depraved imagination” (“Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” p. 411).

  27. “Fancy's Show Box” provides a useful gloss on YGB not only because it stresses the “spectral” and illusory relation of Mr. Smith's solid-seeming outward life to his inner or intentional life, but also because it stresses the variability of intention. If wicked intentions do produce “a stain on the soul,” still this terrible doctrine is partly relieved by its counterpart; a reversal of intention blots out the stain: “one truly penitential tear would have washed away each hateful picture, and left the canvas white as snow” (I, 255). Furthermore, the dominant theme of the sketch seems to be the extreme fluidity of intention, the psychological impossibility of fixing oneself, once and for all, in a single moral state. For the most part, Hawthorne hypothetically argues (on behalf of Mr. Smith), we really do not know a firm intention from a flitting fantasy. “There is no such thing in man's nature as a settled and full resolve, either for good or evil, except at the very moment of execution” (257, my italics). Before an “act,” intention is hypothetical; and afterwards as gloating or regretting memory, it is scarcely more substantial: one can continue to “will” a sin after its commission; but one can also repent. What this proves, quite simply, is that Hawthorne himself could not believe in the permanent psychological efficacy of a compact with the devil. Of course, he is an Arminian and not a Calvinist: not believing in predestination, he cannot personally believe in witchcraft as a reprobate's embracing of the inevitable; and he can see no other way to make a will-to-evil fixed and final. To be sure, the will-to-evil exists. Goodman Brown in mid-career wants to fix himself in a depraved condition, and probably he goes as far as it is possible to go. But he pulls back. Doubtless Hawthorne would say that every other character in YGB has been similarly inclined, or had similar intentions, at various times; in the language of the story, they too had been into the forest, but had pulled back at the last second. What damns Goodman Brown, therefore, is something much subtler than a fixed and irreversible will-to-evil. It is his failure to believe that the will-to-evil is no more settled in others than it has been in himself. In short, he not only projects his guilt onto others, but he fixes it there. What has existed in his own soul as forest-temptation and then as forest-intention but never as forest-baptism must, he believes, exist in others as the final reality.

  28. As is clear to us from a book like Morgan's Visible Saints—and as we are constrained to conclude was clear to Hawthorne from the Magnalia—American Puritanism's defining essence is the attempt to conflate the Visible with the Invisible Church, to test religious experience so severely that those who comprised the visible people of God should be only his elected saints. From within the premises of Calvinistic predestinarianism, Roger Williams was the first American to protest: after his career of purer-and-purer churches, he finally gave it up; deciding that election was a matter between the individual soul and God, he saw that the reality of election could not be made to guarantee any visible, worldly agency, whether magisterial or ecclesiastical. For a full and sympathetic account of his career, his doctrines, and his criticisms of the standard Puritan “Way,” see Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (New York, 1967); Morgan's book, in turn, is deeply indebted to Perry Miller's Roger Williams (New York, 1953).

  29. The formula is one which Frederick Crews applies to Hawthorne himself, in his relation to his hated Puritan “fathers” (see Sins, p. 38); but it applies a little more appropriately to Puritan Witches than to our blue-eyed Nathaniel. For Winthrop's account of the child-murderer, see his Journal (1790; rpt. New York, 1908), I, 230. Arguments about the undeniable reality and psycho-social meaning of the Salem witchcraft may be found in Hansen's Witchcraft (see note 22) and Kai T. Erikson's Wayward Puritans (New York, 1966), especially pp. 137-159.

  30. For Goodman Brown's refusal of baptism as part of a pattern of contrary motivation, see Walter J. Paulits, “Ambivalence in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” AL, 41 (1970).

  31. Ever since Richard Harter Fogle wrote that in YGB “Hawthorne wishes to propose, not flatly that man is primarily evil, but instead the gnawing doubt lest this should be the case” (“Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” NEQ, 18 [1945], 448), critics have been sensitive to a range of meanings other than a simple affirmation of Calvinist Total Depravity. The effect of recent criticism is to make Hawthorne's own affirmations or denials more and more indirectly related to those of Goodman Brown: what does Brown believe? on what evidence? with what justification? My proposal is that though he is not absolutely certain the rest of the world is in league with Satan, his theoretical doubt amounts, practically, to a very strong suspicion. And, more important, that his suspicion is specifically and formally of others. Critics (like Connolly) too often assume that Brown's final state is to be described as a belief, or a near-belief, in the Devil's baptismal sermon on total depravity; I would suggest that, based on his own refusal of baptism, he is constantly making an exception for himself. However strongly he believes, or doubts, or suspects witchcraft in others, what he remembers about himself is not his mid-forest rage but his witch-meeting refusal.

  32. For latter-day Puritan subtlety—not to say doubleness—see The Return of Several Ministers Consulted, reprinted in Levin, What Happened in Salem?, pp. 110-111. And for an example of the earlier mode of subtlety—on the distinguishing of hypocrites—see the selections Perry Miller has made from John Cotton's The New Covenant, in The Puritans (New York, 1938), I, 314-318.

  33. Williams' solution, as I have already suggested (see note 28), was to suggest that, since true spirituality was so ineluctably “inner,” there is really no such thing as a true church in this world. Stoddard, like Williams, remained a staunch Calvinist and gave over the project of trying to make ecclesiastical distinctions on his or anyone else's ability to detect the presence of saving grace; but he remained a staunch “theocrat.” Treating the Lord's Supper as a “means,” and admitting to it therefore all baptized persons of sound belief and upright life, he essentially demystified the idea of membership in a Puritan church (see Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, pp. 227-302). Arminians, of course, disbelieved in the doctrine of “final perseverance,” and hence knew that only on the last day could the wheat and the tares be distinguished.

  34. A very perceptive discussion of the problems raised by the notion of the “Judgement of Charity” is contained in Robert Middlekauff's The Mathers (New York, 1971). Especially interesting is the question of the subtleties the doctrine ultimately involved. Richard Mather, a Founding Father, spoke of “rational charity” but, as Middlekauff shrewdly suggests, “he might well have substituted ‘suspicious’ for rational” (pp. 52-53). A generation later, his son Increase, who knew (in the witchcraft proceedings) that the devil's ability to appear as an angel of light presented profound legal difficulties, also knew more about the difficulties of testing for saving Faith; he was, accordingly, more genuinely “charitable” in his “rational” judgements (pp. 126-133).

  35. I have argued the “Rappaccini” case elsewhere: see “A Better Mode of Evidence,” Emerson Society Quarterly, 54 (1969).

  36. The speaker is Sister Soulsby, the female evangelist in The Damnation of Theron Ware. The context is the crassly revivalistic Methodism in the long since “burned-over” district of New York; but if the situation strikes us as more vulgarly modern than classically Puritan, still the theological (and the epistemological) problem is the same—the American-Evangelical problem of the distinguishing of Saints.

  37. For evidence that the decision to admit to the status of “visible saints” only those tested for “gracious,” or “faithful,” or specifically “Christian” experience was the result of enthusiastic fervor, see David D. Hall's “Introduction” to The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638 (Middletown, Conn., 1968), pp. 3-20. For a selected analysis of intimidating Puritan autobiographies, see Daniel B. Shea, Jr., Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (Princeton, N.J., 1968). The solemn charge quoted is from Thomas Shepard to his son, on the first page of his Autobiography. That particular document may stand as typical of the way first-generation Puritans created spiritual trauma and oedipal strife for their descendants; see Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 27 (1932), 357-392.

  38. For the emphasis of the popular romancers, see Bell, Historical Romance, pp. 99-100. The obvious analogue of the explicit historical moralizing Hawthorne does in ADA is Charles W. Upham's Lectures on Witchcraft (Boston, Mass., 1831).

  39. In my view Michael Bell has generally underestimated the differences between Hawthorne and his contemporary writers of historical romance; less in the case of YGB than of other tales, but measurably. See Historical Romance, pp. 72-104.

  40. The classic formulation of the argument that there was “nothing Puritan” about the Salem witchcraft is G. L. Kittredge's “Witchcraft and the Puritans,” the last chapter of his famous Witchcraft in Old and New England (Cambridge, Mass., 1929). Though richer in examples, his argument is in logic identical with that of Charles Upham's second Salem lecture. In both authors, the argument is just as “tedious”—and, for precise intellectual history, just as “irrelevant”—as Perry Miller has suggested; see The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, pp. 191 ff.

  41. As Miller formulates the case, “We shall avoid confusing ourselves by an irrelevant intrusion of modern criteria only when we realize that what struck Salem Village was intelligible to everybody concerned—instigators, victims, judges, and clergy—within the logic of the covenant” (The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, p. 192). The essence of that covenant, of course, remained the obligation to protect pure churches; and this obligation rested, in turn, on the ability to make a fairly reliable chart of the invisible, moral world. Clearly Cotton Mather spoke the consensus when he suggested that, after many “abortive” attempts toward the “extirpation of the vine which God has here planted,” the devil's growing desperation has led him to make “one attempt more upon us, an attempt more difficult, more surprising, more snarled with unintelligible circumstances than any hitherto encountered, an attempt so critical that if we shall get through, we shall soon enjoy halcyon days with all the vultures of hell trodden under our feet”; see Wonders of the Invisible World (Boston, Mass., 1693), p. 7.

  42. The formula is one of my own devising, but one may infer it from Mather's Magnalia; and I believe it will adequately summarize the findings of Edmund S. Morgan in Visible Saints; see especially pp. 1-32.

  43. The “Several Ministers” are quoted from Levin, What Happened in Salem?, p. 111. The document in question then goes on, as is well known, to “recommend unto the Government, the speedy and vigorous Prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the Direction given in the Laws of God, and the wholesome Statutes of the English Nation, for the Detection of Witchcrafts.” If anyone felt any contradiction, the feeling is not recorded. And indeed, Cotton Mather subsequently makes quite clear (in the book which Perry Miller accuses of having “whitewashed” the whole legal proceedings and having “prostituted” the whole grand notion of the covenant) exactly what was at issue: if there should turn out to be no way to discover and prove a witch, then that fact “threatens a sort of disollution upon the world.”

  44. For Cotton vs Williams on the parable of the wheat and the tares, see Miller, Williams, pp. 102-128. Since for the mature Williams, the only real church was spiritual and invisible, the field in the parable had to refer to the world: ex hypotheosi, there could be no weeds in God's real church, and of course there were sinners and saints in the world. Cotton's problem was far more complicated: after the revival of the 1630's began to wear off, he came to accept (and even in certain contexts to defend) the idea of weedlike hypocrites among the wheatlike saints in the field of the New England Churches; but he never for a moment abandoned the idea of a pure church of visible (and for the most part true) saints as the prime agency of God's Glory in this world.

  45. The verdict of Marion L. Starkey seems to echo that of Hawthorne: the witchcraft “had brought a division and a sore sickness of spirit on the people. Husband had ‘broken charity’ with his wife and wife with husband, mother with child and child with mother” (The Devil, p. 248). Starkey even wonders with something like bewilderment how a husband could come to suspect his wife on the strength of such evidence as the Salem trials were able to uncover. Hawthorne obviously felt horror and revulsion at such facts, but he seems to have been too familiar with the supernatural projects of the Puritans to have been really surprised at any such natural displacements.

  46. It is also possible that, at another level of consciousness, Goodman Brown's name may owe something to the story, told in the records of the Plymouth Colony, of John Goodman and Peter Browne. The two mysteriously disappeared from the Community one day at noon. Assumed dead, the two were actually hunting. They got lost, fell asleep, and woke up terrified to hear “two lyons roaring exceedingly, for a long time together.” The analogy is not too close; but the “lyons” may have been spectral, and Hawthorne surely knew what Adversary it was who “went about as a roaring lion, seeking whom to devour.” For the story, see George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (New York, 1945), pp. 163-165.

  47. See Wonders, quoted in Burr, Narratives, p. 215. The text of 2 Corinthians 11:14 was widely cited during the witchcraft episode. And, as things distressingly turned out, it could be used in opposite ways. Granted: “Satan himself is transformed into an Angel of Light.” But whereas Increase Mather used the doctrine to warn the rash about the subtle treacheries of spectral evidence, and so to restrain an overly vigorous prosecution, Cotton Mather evidently used it to “compass” the death of George Burroughs. See, on the one hand, Levin's selection from Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (What Happened in Salem?, pp. 117-129); and, on the other, the account given by Robert Calef of the death of George Burroughs (Burr, Narratives, pp. 360-361).

  48. Starkey retains a hint of the older version: the people suddenly realized that “Their leaders had suffered the devil to guide them. They were turning from such leaders” (The Devil, p. 249). Miller's version is less melodramatic: “The onus of error lay heavy upon the land; realization of it slowly but irresistibly ate into the New England conscience. For a long time dismay did not translate itself into a disbelief in witchcraft or into anticlericalism, but it rapidly became an unassuageable grief that the covenanted community should have committed an irreparable evil” (The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, p. 208).

  49. For the spread of Stoddardism up to 1692, see Pope, Half-Way Covenant, especially pp. 239-260. For the relation of Stoddardism to the Brattle Street Church, see Morgan, Visible Saints, pp. 139-152. Thomas Brattle's letter of 1692 is included in its entirety (along with most of Calef's More Wonders) in Burr's Narratives. And for Judge Sewall's change of heart, see his Diary (Mass. Hist. Soc., 45-47 [1878-1882]), for 19 August 1692 and 15 January 1696/7. And (finally) for a slightly different view of Salem witchcraft and the end of the authentic Puritan world, see Erikson, Wayward Puritans, pp. 155-159.

Leo B. Levy (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 74, No. 3, July, 1975, pp. 375-87.

[In the following essay, Levy discusses the role of faith in “Young Goodman Brown” and contends that Hawthorne's intent is to depict the sin of falling into despair once faith is gone.]

Few of Hawthorne's tales have elicited a wider range of interpretations than “Young Goodman Brown.” The critics have been victimized by the notorious ambiguity of a tale composed of a mixture of allegory and the psychological analysis of consciousness. Many of them find the key to its meaning in a neurotic predisposition to evil; one goes so far as to compare Goodman Brown to Henry James's governess in The Turn of the Screw.1 The psychological aspect is undeniably important, since we cannot be certain whether “Young Goodman Brown” is a dream-allegory that takes place in the mind and imagination of the protagonist, an allegory with fixed referents in the external world, or a combination of these that eludes our ordinary understanding of the genre itself. The story is all three: a dream vision, a conventional allegory, and finally an inquiry into the problem of faith that undermines the assumptions upon which the allegory is based.

Whether we think of the central episode of the witches' Sabbath as a dream or an hallucination, or as a nightmarish “real” experience, it must be placed in relationship to elements of the story that are outside Brown's consciousness. His point of view is in the foreground, but it must contend with the point of view of a narrator who is not identified with his perceptions. The narrator's irony and detachment, and his frequent intrusions, are measures of the distance he places between himself and a protagonist he regards with a mixture of condescension and pity. No fewer than three attitudes toward faith emerge from the story: Brown's, the view expressed in the concluding parable, and that which by implication is Hawthorne's. The elusiveness with which the narrative moves into Brown's state of mind and then outward arises from this complex view of faith, and also from the conception of Faith as a double, who “like Beatrice Rappaccini is both pure and poisonous, saint and sinner.”2 She is at once an allegorical idea and the means by which the idea is inverted. Those celebrated pink ribbons on Faith's cap—the objects of an astonishing range of responses by critics of the story—are vital to an understanding of her metamorphosis and of Brown's desperate efforts to recover his faith.

The impression that the story hovers on the borderline between subjective and objective reality derives from Hawthorne's suggestion that Brown's experience is peculiar to him and yet broadly representative. Not until the next to last paragraph are we offered what seems to be a choice between these alternatives: Hawthorne asks, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?”3 His reply—“Be it so if you will; but alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown”—is often taken to mean that we may read the story either way; but we may wonder why Hawthorne defers this question until the end. The reader may suspect that “Young Goodman Brown” is a tale in which reality is entirely subsumed by the consciousness of the protagonist; if so, his suspicion will be heightened when Hawthorne, in the sentence following his question and answer, less tentatively alludes to “the night of that fearful dream.” And yet even this statement leaves the issue unresolved. This irresolution is not coyness on Hawthorne's part: if the dream theory were confirmed, it would have the effect of canceling a whole range of intimations that surround the dream but are not part of it. Through the dream metaphor the many hints of Brown's unconscious fascination with evil are communicated, but Hawthorne recognizes that our waking life and the life of dreams are bound up together—that life is like a dream in its revelation of terrifying truths. His point is that the truth conveyed in the dream—that faith may betray us—is also a truth of waking experience.


The story begins as a conventional allegory, creating the expectation that the characters will consistently exhibit the abstractions they symbolize. If Hawthorne intends Brown to be a pathological case, that intention is not evident in the early stages. The problem of man's journey into the mystery of evil is presented in the broadest possible terms. Faith Brown, the wife of three months, is simply “Faith,” and Goodman Brown is Everyman. The bargain he has struck with Satan is the universal one, reinforced by such signs as the innocence with which he convinces himself that he can turn aside from his covenant and the assurances he offers himself of his good intentions. Initially, he is a naïve and immature young man who fails to understand the gravity of the step he has taken. Though Hawthorne does not provide a transitional development, he drastically alters this picture: the early indications of Brown's immaturity are succeeded by a presumably adult determination to resist his own evil impulses. His continuing willingness to join the community of sinners coexists with a reaction against that willingness. As the task of turning back becomes increasingly difficult, confronting him with one frustration after another, his struggle takes on heroic proportions.

Far from showing himself to be “a prospective convert who is only too willing to be convinced,”4 Brown displays a mounting resistance to the Devil's enticements. No sooner does he leave Faith than “his heart smote him”; he replies to the Devil's reproach for his lateness at the appointed place, saying “Faith kept me back awhile.” As the two travel into the forest the Devil observes the slowness of his companion's pace and ironically offers him his staff, thereby prompting the young man to confess, “I have scruples touching the matter thou wot’st of.” He genuinely wishes to escape the Devil's snare: he withstands the revelation that the deacons and selectmen of his village, and the governor himself, have preceded him on this journey; and the discovery that Goody Cloyse, the old woman who had taught him his catechism, is a witch does not affect his determination to turn back: “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 assures himself that when he returns home he will meet the minister with a clear conscience, “nor shrink from the eye of good old Deacon Gookin”; he will sleep “so purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith!” It is not surprising that he is “ready to sink down to the ground, faint and overburdened with heavy sickness of his heart,” when he learns that the deacon and the minister are of the Devil's company. Nevertheless, he cries out, “With Heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the Devil!”

Beyond this point, Brown calls out three times for Faith to come to his aid, and not until he sees a pink ribbon from Faith's cap that has fluttered down from the sky and caught on the branch of a tree does he abandon hope, crying “My Faith is gone.” As if to reinforce the tangible evidence of Faith's desertion, Hawthorne writes that Brown “seized” and “beheld” the fateful ribbon. He now knows that Faith's voice has been mingled with the other “familiar tones, heard daily at Salem village,” but now issuing from the depths of a cloud—from the company of Satan's followers sailing through the air. The most frightful episode of the tale follows: Brown becomes a “demoniac,” “the chief horror” in a scene full of horrors—of terrible sounds made up of “the creaking of trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians.” Utterly possessed by the Devil, he yields to the conviction that the world is given over to sin. But when silence falls and he enters the clearing where the assembly of the damned is gathered for the performance of its ritual, his hopes rise again because Faith, whom he expects to see, is not there. But she soon stands with him among those who are about to undergo their initiation. They are “the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world.” They look at each other in fearful anticipation, and for the last time Brown calls out for help: “Faith! Faith! … look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.” But “whether Faith obeyed he knew not.” The whole spectacle of the witches' Sabbath vanishes at this instant, and Brown, staggering against the rock that had formed the altar, finds himself alone in the wilderness.

It cannot plausibly be argued that Brown has all along been prone to the despair into which he is then plunged, since after abandoning himself to wickedness and turning himself into an image of the fiend he recovers his composure and calls upon Faith once more. He is alone among Hawthorne's many “demoniacs” in reversing the process of committing himself to evil. Nevertheless, the sequel shows him irrevocably fallen into gloom and despair, condemned to a long life of withdrawal and suspicion. Brown has exhibited a compulsive denial of his compact with the Devil; but when his efforts to recover his former relationship with Faith collapse, he has no recourse except despair. No effort of the conscious will can save him. And yet the story is least of all a study, like “Roger Malvin's Burial,” of unconscious motivation. Instead, Hawthorne seems content to emphasize Brown's helplessness. The spiritual test to which he is submitted is conducted on terms that only demonstrate the futility of his attempts to extricate himself. Even if we suppose that he unconsciously chooses to end his dream before Faith can reply, thereby condemning himself to a lifetime of faithlessness, the fact remains that Hawthorne has caught him in a trap as diabolical as anything the Devil might invent.

The psychoanalytically oriented critics interpret Goodman Brown's helplessness in terms of the projective mechanism of the dream or fantasy, which they regard as symptomatic of mental illness.5 The difficulty of this approach is not the contention that the presence of the Devil and his company and the rites into which Brown is drawn are projections, but that it ignores the conflict and resistance to which Hawthorne gives such explicit and emphatic attention. The projective aspect of Brown's experience is not the whole of it. His submission to evil suggests that the demands of the id have overtaken the ego; his prolonged resistance is a denial of the wishes that are the source of his projections. His conflict originates in the superego, whose task is to punish the ego for its defections and, as the voice of conscience, to repress the satisfactions of the instinctual life. Brown's recovery from the Walpurgisnacht episode, in which he gives way completely to the id, is made possible by the activated defense mechanisms of the ego, which cries out to be saved. If we wonder why the witches' Sabbath ends with such breathtaking abruptness, the answer might be that the ego cannot tolerate the threat of destruction that awaits it if the initiation rites take place. The sexually fraught demands of the id are put down, though at a terrible price. In psychoanalytic terms, “Young Goodman Brown” is about the defeat of the id by the ego and the superego. The result of this suppression is that Brown, despairing and embittered, belongs neither to the Devil's party nor to the only other life-sustaining cause he knows—that of the Puritan faith and the Puritan community. The withdrawal and gloom that envelop him after his return to the village come about not because he has yielded to the overwhelming vision of evil in the forest, but because he has repressed it. The ego forbids him to accept his evil impulses as his own; hence he projects them upon his wife, whose virtue he now distrusts, and upon the other villagers, in whose goodness he can no longer believe.

But this—or any other psychological interpretation—restricts our understanding of a story that is cast in religious and theological terms. We must move outside the limits of the dream or fantasy, beyond any view of the nature of the forest experience, and examine the ideas that structure that experience. A clue to the basic question raised by the story is provided by Henry James's complaint that “if it meant anything, it would mean too much.”6 James does not identify the specific source of his objection, but the context of his remark makes it clear that he believes that behind “Young Goodman Brown” is a kind of extravagance and even irrationality that gives rise to a “magnificent little romance,” as he calls it, that cannot be taken seriously (James, p. 81). Evidently he found the image of a man pleading for faith and deprived of it with such arbitrariness baffling. The magical, supernatural, and mysterious connotations accompanying the disappearance of the witches' Sabbath and Brown's “awakening” may well have offended James's sense of fictional propriety as well as his sense of the writer's obligation to describe a moral crisis in rational terms. This development in the story originates in the Gothic idea of an irresistible and omnipresent evil. James, reacting against this vision, insists that the tale “evidently means nothing as regards Hawthorne's own state of mind, his conviction of human depravity and his consequent melancholy” (James, p. 81). However, it was not necessary for Hawthorne to literally subscribe to such a vision in order for his imagination to be powerfully engaged by it. The very excessiveness of his story is the source of its lasting impression upon those who have read it. Behind it is the motive that shapes such tales as “John Inglefield's Thanksgiving,” “The Minister's Black Veil,” and “The Christmas Banquet,” among others, which are intelligible only on the principle that Hawthorne is dramatizing his feeling that once the commitment to evil has been made, its impact must prevail. There is no power strong enough to oppose it. In “Young Goodman Brown” the struggle is so unequal that Faith, supposedly the Devil's antagonist, is drawn into the camp of the enemy.


Not the least terrifying aspect of the story is the insinuation that Faith has made her own independent covenant with the Devil. There is a faint suggestion that her complicity may be prior to and deeper than Brown's. This “monstrous inversion,” as Terence Martin aptly calls it,7 is as sinister as anything to be found in Hawthorne's writings. This development is anticipated when Faith, imploring her husband not to leave her, says that “a lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes,” and she urges him to stay with her “this night … of all nights in the year.” In this way, her bad dreams are linked to his, suggesting that both have prepared themselves for the same experience. However, we know nothing of the circumstances that bring her into the forest except what Brown discovers for himself. When Goody Cloyse tells the Devil that she has heard that “there is a nice young man to be taken into communion tonight,” he denies the report, just as he had previously assured Brown that his Faith will not come to any harm. Brown overhears a voice like Deacon Gookin's declare that “there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion,” a statement offered not as something Brown imagines but given by one who does not know that he is listening. When the converts are brought forth, Brown approaches the congregation, “with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart.” He imagines—or sees—his father beckoning him on and his mother warning him back. Here again Hawthorne blurs the distinction between actual participants and projections. However, no such ambiguity attends the identification of “the slender form of a veiled female” brought forth by Goody Cloyse and Martha Carrier to take part in the baptismal rites: “the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.”

There is little agreement among critics about Faith as a character or as an allegorical figure. For some, Faith is allegorically consistent: Neal Frank Doubleday takes it as a sign of Faith's benevolence that when Brown calls upon Faith to “‘resist the wicked one’ … he is released from the witch-meeting.”8 Even those who recognize Faith's dual character argue that she retains her allegorical identity. For Roy R. Male, “almost everything in the forest scene suggests that the communion of sinners is essentially sexual and that Brown qualifies for it by his marriage.”9 And yet Male does not regard Faith's participation in the sexuality of marriage as an indication that she is “evil” in the sense that Brown is; one wonders why the sexual union leaves her free of the stain of original sin. Daniel Hoffman writes that “in one sense, she is the forest, and Brown has qualified for admission to the witches' orgy by having carnal knowledge of her.”10 Hoffman, too, absolves Faith of her share in the consequences of carnal knowledge: she “transcends Brown's knowledge of evil with all-encompassing love.” In following Brown's corpse to the grave, “Faith remains true to him” (pp. 158, 156). But Hoffman's argument cannot resolve the paradox he himself describes: if “she is the forest”—if she too is guilty of carnal knowledge—how can she remain “the Devil's only antagonist in this tale,” having “such faith in man that she can transcend the revelation that [Brown] is fallen?” (p. 167). After all, she too has fallen. The Devil's only antagonist, so far as the reader can tell, is Goodman Brown.

This confusion of the fictional character of Faith with the allegorical concept has its roots in the story itself. The basic thrust of the story is that faith is deficient, but the deficiency arises not from the personification of Faith as a woman and a wife but from Hawthorne's handling of the abstraction. He is not suggesting that Faith as an abstraction is susceptible to the human frailties of Everyman but somehow transcends them, even though he creates the correspondences that give rise to this misconception. His position seems to be that faith is a self-consistent principle, however unreliable and unpredictable. There is a submerged, possible unintended, but nonetheless dreadful irony in the manner in which Faith greets Brown on his return to the village, as if she had not been present in the forest and had played no part in the terrible events that take place there. She is as she was at the beginning—except that it is impossible for Brown to see her as she was. The meaning of the story arises from this discrepancy.

Faith's most conspicuous physical characteristic consists of the pink ribbons on her cap. They are the subject of many attempts to sustain an argument about her allegorical significance and to reconcile the two Faiths, one comely, almost lightsome, and the other in complicity with the powers of darkness. The ribbons provide the symbolic continuity between Faith as an ideal of religious fidelity and as a partner in a witches' Sabbath. The most obvious feature of these interpretations is their ingenuity and their diversity. To Thomas E. Connolly the ribbons “seem to be symbolic of [Brown's] initial illusion about the true significance of his faith, his belief that that his faith will lead him to heaven.” Elsewhere, Connolly finds that they symbolize “illicit passion and purity.” For Paul W. Miller, the ribbons “keep Faith humble and honest, and thus contribute to her ultimate preservation from the Evil One,” and for E. Arthur Robinson they are “representative of woman's physical nature” and of Faith's sexual passion. Darrel Abel considers the ribbons “a badge of feminine innocence.” For Paul J. Hurley, they represent “the ritualistic trappings of religious observance,” and for Hyatt Waggoner they signalize Brown's immature faith. Richard H. Fogle has commented that “as an emblem of heavenly Faith their color gradually deepens into the liquid flame or blood of the baptism into sin.”11 There is no way to choose among views that differ so in their symbolic attributions; how one interprets the ribbons obviously depends upon one's prior understanding of the story.

F. O. Matthiessen observes of the scene in which Brown believes he has visible proof of Faith's betrayal that “only the literal insistence on that damaging pink ribbon obtrudes the labels of a confining allegory, and short-circuits the range of association.” He evidently means that the ribbon fails to work symbolically in an otherwise powerful depiction of Brown's inner experience. He contrasts Hawthorne's image of the ribbon to Melville's metaphor of “the ball of free will” held (and dropped) by Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, remarking that “only by discovering such metaphors can the writer suggest the actual complexity of experience.”12 But when Matthiessen adds that “we are bothered by the ribbon because it is an abstraction pretending to be something else” (p. 285), he fails to recognize that, on the contrary, it is because the ribbon is no more than a tangible object that its effect is “literal” rather than abstract, and for this reason cannot function metaphorically. It is simply a descriptive element, one of the realistic details that gives Faith such physical reality as she has. The ribbons belong to a fictional character described as “sweet,” “pretty,” and “little,” more reminiscent of a genteel girl of Hawthorne's own day than a Puritan woman who might also have worn pink ribbons. She is the cheerful wife, one of Hawthorne's feminine figures, like Phoebe or Hilda, who serves as an emblem of steadfastness in a world of pollution.

David Levin argues that “Brown's sensory perception of the ribbons is no more literal or material than his perception of the Devil, his clutching of the staff, or his hearing of the Devil's statement about the fifteen-minute trip from Boston to the woods near Salem village.”13 Approving this view, Frederick Crews disputes the claim that the “tangible reality” of the pink ribbons is evidence that Faith is “really” in the forest, adding that “Brown shares Othello's fatuous concern for ‘ocular proof,’ and the proof that is seized upon is no more substantial in one case than in the other.”14 These critics do not perceive that whether we are looking at the story in psychological terms or in terms of evidence that Brown is beset by counterfeit images—spectres of real persons—conjured by the Devil, the literary relationships that give rise to these and other interpretations are still there, on the page and in the text. In this sense, it does not matter which critical perspective we choose to pursue. The ribbons are in fact an explicit link between two conceptions of Faith, connecting sweet little Faith of the village with the woman who stands at the Devil's baptismal font. We can legitimately disagree about the meaning of this duality; the fact remains that in proposing that Faith's significance is the opposite of what he had led the reader to expect, Hawthorne violates the fixed conceptual meaning associated with his character. This breaking of the allegorical mold is more than a technical violation of the genre: it turns the story in an entirely new direction, so that it is deprived of the essential feature of all allegory—the ability to derive an abstract truth from its unfolding.

As we have noted, Hawthorne combines the kind of allegory that depicts the interaction of characters in an external setting—a technique of “realistic” as well as allegorical narrative—with the internalization of the action in the mind of the protagonist, for the purpose of dividing the reader's perception of what is happening. The ambiguity that results has the effect of enriching the story; but when the method is applied to the ribbons, the effect is a kind of teasing. The ribbons intrude themselves upon the symbolic sphere of the story where they do not belong; they have no meaning except as a fanciful joke, a grace note woven into the solemn theme of the tale.15 However, they have an important dramatic function: as we see them at the beginning and end of the story, the ribbons identify the physical as distinct from the allegorical character of Faith; we have no need to see them in symbolic terms, since Faith as an abstraction is fully defined by her name alone. They are part of her adornment of dress, and they suggest, rather than symbolize, something light and playful, consistent with her anxious simplicity at the beginning and the joyful, almost childish eagerness with which she greets Brown at the end. It is only in the forest scene that the single ribbon becomes disturbing. The critics have seized upon this ribbon no less desperately than Goodman Brown himself in order to establish the continuity of the allegorical theme. But it is by means of the ribbon that Hawthorne disrupts the allegory; all that we see of Faith now is the ornament that warrants her physical presence just when her allegorical presence vanishes. The moment is dramatic in the contrast of the frivolous, fluttering piece of ribbon with the darkness, agony, and doubt that envelop the scene. It is as if Hawthorne were saying, “Yes, it is truly Faith, as you see by this ribbon, who is no longer Faith.”

The psychology-oriented critics believe that they solve the problem of the ribbons by saying that they are part of Goodman Brown's dream, no more or less “real” than the rest of what his diseased mind invents out of its own necessities. This theory cannot tell us when the dream begins: does Brown dream that he bids good-bye to Faith? If so, then he may also be dreaming of his return to the village and of the despair that afflicts him, and even of his long, unhappy life and eventual death. Did he dream that he made a covenant with the Devil? Did he do so before he entered the forest to keep his appointment, waking from one dream only to fall victim to another, after a pointless evening walk? The story is constructed in such a way that questions of this kind cannot be answered; but it does make a distinction between Brown's departure and return and the period between them. We may believe that the interval is a dream, even though we cannot know when it begins. This assumption has much to be said for it; but if we follow it we must conclude that the ribbons are both in and out of the dream, that Brown is dreaming about something he is familiar with in his waking experience. It is little wonder, then, that the sight of the ribbon produces the shock that leads him to connect his dream with reality in such a devastating fashion. In emotional as well as visual terms, the world of the nightmare and the world of the Puritan community are united. This development is reinforced by the bewilderment of Brown's return to the village and its profoundly disorienting consequences. Perhaps it is not until he encounters the minister, Deacon Gookin, and Goody Cloyse, and then sees “the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth,” that his faith is permanently shattered. The breakdown of the beliefs and assumptions that gave order and stability to his life is complete.


It is sometimes said that Hawthorne's purpose in “Young Goodman Brown” is to demonstrate the unresponsiveness of Puritanic Calvinism to the needs of the believer. However, Hawthorne's equation of the Puritan experience with the devil-worship that is its inversion is a form of dramatic hyperbole that should not be taken literally. The Puritan vision of evil was a dreadful one, and there can be no doubt that Hawthorne means to dramatize its excesses; but this is not the same thing as drawing up an indictment of Puritan faith. Hawthorne knew that witches' Sabbaths and Black Masses were not confined to Puritan New England, and he knew that the possibility of being overwhelmed by the discovery of the power of evil was universal. He reacted strongly against the bigotry, cruelty, and hypocrisy of his New England ancestors, but that reaction does not exhaust the complex judgment he formed of them. Even the Reverend Dimmesdale, that pious hypocrite, has in his possession a larger share of the truth about the human condition—truth that derives from his faith—than the romantic and memorable rebel, Hester Prynne. Hawthorne well knew the variability of the experience of faith among the Puritans. Elsewhere he shows us that it may lead to serenity, to a dehumanizing dogmatism, or to intense suffering of spirit. Faith may also, as in “Young Goodman Brown,” mysteriously abandon us.

As a form, allegory is a systematic organization of fixed beliefs; Hawthorne utilizes the form for the purpose of showing that the safety and security implicit in it are illusory. The meaning of the story is that its own simple definitions do not work. Instead, we are shown that there is no necessary connection between our critical need for faith and the responsiveness of faith. This is the larger significance of “Young Goodman Brown,” not the comfortable parable that warns us against the sin of despair, which the moralistic tenor of the conclusion would have us believe can be avoided if only we listen attentively enough. The last paragraph turns Brown into an object lesson; but, as is often the case with Hawthorne's tales, a truer meaning is discovered before this point of constriction is reached. In his penetrating analysis of the problem of faith in Hawthorne's fiction, Taylor Stoehr, writing of “Rappaccini's Daughter” as well as “Young Goodman Brown,” observes that “Hawthorne seems to throw the blame on his characters, while at the same time he gives them no possible means of saving themselves.” Stoehr adds that “for a man who is always complaining about his characters' lack of faith, Hawthorne himself is singularly dubious about the possibilities of life and human nature.”16

For Hawthorne, the loss of faith is always imminent, a danger that increases in proportion to our involvement in a moral reality that is always more unsettling than we like to believe. His concern in “Young Goodman Brown,” apart from describing the terrors of the Puritan struggle for faith, is with our inability to foresee the consequences of our choices or to judge the nature of the moral forces that press upon us. We can easily move past the point of return, and, like Goodman Brown, find that it is too late for what we want and need. Brown's last cry for Faith is the most poignant moment of the story, expressing his need to assimilate the experiences through which he has passed, and even his capacity to do so. The silence between dream and waking, or between the actuality of the witches' Sabbath and his ordinary life, is the silence of the void between spiritual need and spiritual sustenance. The reader is not less stunned than Brown himself, since he cannot easily resolve the paradox into which he has been led. He saw Brown at the outset abandon Faith; if that were all that he is meant to see, the tale would be very simple. But now the reader finds that Faith has deserted Brown—a distinction that may seem elusive but is nevertheless the crux upon which everything turns. Faith is originally the “good angel” to whose skirts Goodman Brown resolves to cling hereafter. To suggest that the good angel may turn herself into a demon is an insight that Hawthorne does not often risk, though there is also a hint of the diabolical in the transformations through which he takes Priscilla in The Blithedale Romance.17

Hawthorne typically pays detailed attention to the costume and dress of his feminine characters as symbolic evidences of the stages through which they move. Except for her ribbons, Faith is pictorially a cipher, an abstraction for which Hawthorne refuses symbolic amplification, perhaps because of his sense of its precarious status. Therefore, Faith (or faith) becomes unresponsive, it disappears, and when it reappears it stands in the midst of all that it dreads. If, awaking at midnight, Goodman Brown shrinks from the bosom of Faith, it is because he has taken the full measure of her duplicity. “Such loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin.” Hawthorne says of Hester Prynne, and in The Scarlet Letter he castigates “the Fiend” for leaving nothing “for this poor sinner to revere.”18 But in “Young Goodman Brown” it is Faith, not Satan or the sinner, whose defection is at issue.


  1. Darrel Abel, “Black Glove and Pink Ribbon: Hawthorne's Metonymic Symbols,” NEQ [New England Quarterly], 42 (1969), 180.

  2. Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (New York, 1964), p. 77.

  3. Quotations from “Young Goodman Brown” are from The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Garden City, N.Y., 1959), pp. 247-56.

  4. David Levin, “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” AL [American Literature], 34 (1962), 350.

  5. Paul J. Hurley attributes the ambiguity of the story to “Hawthorne's suggestion that the incredible incidents in the forest were the product of an ego-induced fantasy, the self-justification of a diseased mind” (“Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” AL, 37 [1966], 419). According to Frederick Crews, the Devil's address to Brown and his fellow initiates, itemizing the sexual sins of mankind, “issues from Brown's own horror of sexuality in married love” (The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes [New York, 1966] p. 102). Michael Davitt Bell argues that “if Brown's experience in the woods is real, then this is a tale about the depravity of mankind. … But if the experience … is dreamed … then the story is hardly moral at all. In this case Brown … is simply sick” (Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England [Princeton, N.J., 1971], p. 77).

  6. Henry James, Hawthorne (1879; rpt., New York, 1956), p. 81.

  7. Terence Martin, Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York, 1965), p. 93.

  8. Neal Frank Doubleday, Hawthorne's Early Tales: A Critical Study (Durham, N.C., 1972), pp. 208-209.

  9. Male, p. 78.

  10. Daniel Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York, 1965), p. 158.

  11. Thomas E. Connolly, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism,” AL, 27 (1956), 374; Connolly, “Introduction,” Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Goodman Brown, The Merrill Literary Casebook Series, ed. Thomas E. Connolly (Columbus, Ohio, 1968), p. 9; Paul W. Miller, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Cynicism or Meliorism?” NCF [Nineteenth–Century Fiction], 14 (1959), 260; E. Arthur Robinson, “The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation,” AL, 35 (1963), 224; Abel, p. 169; Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” p. 416; Hyatt Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), p. 210; Richard H. Fogle, “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” NEQ, 17 (1945), 456.

  12. F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941), p. 284.

  13. Levin, p. 350.

  14. Crews, p. 101.

  15. Edwin Honig, Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory (New York, 1966). Honig writes of “analogical baiting or teasing of the reader” as a result of an unsuccessful evolving of narrative correspondences, rather than of a deliberate withholding of the symbolic term (p. 125). Commenting on the symbolism of “Young Goodman Brown,” Honig says that “the detail of the stick that looks like a serpent—that ‘might be seen to twist and wriggle itself’—may be taken on the factual level for ‘an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.’ On another level, it is vitally relevant to Brown's search for and subsequent disillusionment with the faith of his ancestors” (p. 128). Honig does not discuss the ribbons; it should be noted that Hawthorne specifies the correspondence between the literal and symbolic levels of Satan's staff—it looks like a serpent and hence is associated with other like elements of the story. No such correspondence is supplied for the ribbon.

  16. Taylor Stoehr, “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Hawthorne's Theory of Mimesis,” NCF, 23 (1969), 406-407.

  17. Leo B. Levy, “The Blithedale Romance: Hawthorne's Voyage Through Chaos,” SIR [Studies in Romanticism], 8 (1968), 1-15.

  18. The Scarlet Letter, The Centenary Edition (Columbus, Ohio, 1962), p. 87.

Terence J. Matheson (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's Condemnation of Conformity,” in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal, 1978, pp. 137-45.

[In the following essay, Matheson interprets “Young Goodman Brown” as Hawthorne's condemnation of a society that emphasizes conformity over spiritualism. Matheson argues that Brown's overriding concern for conformity, rather than a moral rejection of evil and sin, keeps him from joining with the Devil.]

At first glance, it might appear farfetched to see Hawthorne's Goodman Brown as the spiritual ancestor of someone like Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that the same preoccupation with social convention, public appearance, and conformity in general that characterized Lewis's twentieth-century protagonist is behind most of the speeches and actions of Hawthorne's seventeenth-century Puritan. Indeed, if Brown does lose the battle with the Devil for his soul, a case can be made that his lack of self-reliance is the most important contributing factor in his damnation.

Virtually everything Brown says and does stems from a concern with preserving his public image in some form or other. This is first seen as he bids farewell to his “aptly-named” and obviously allegorical wife Faith. That Faith is Brown's wife, and hence “his,” is symbolically just as important to the story as is her name. For this indicates that whatever can be said about her symbolic role actually applies to some aspect of Brown. They speak in a strangely ritualistic and artificial tone, as if their conversation had been rehearsed, neither Brown nor his wife really meaning what each says to the other. They give the impression of speaking not from conviction, but as if reciting lines from a prepared text. Faith's initial comment, a rather saccharine appeal to put off his journey, might appear well-intentioned enough, even though it has a lackluster ring to it. But when Brown refuses absolutely to cede to her request, brushing her off with an unconvincing speech of his own (he gives no reasons, but merely states dogmatically that he “must” go), rather than press the issue, she concludes with “‘God bless you.’”1 This suggests, among other things, that she had not expected him to change his mind and spoke not from conviction but simply because she believed it was expected of her.

Also important is that Faith seems to know why Brown is leaving her. She is plainly aware that his journey, far from being routine and normal, involves danger and perhaps evil as well. Her reference to “this” night—probably Hallowe’en—“‘of all nights in the year’” (p. 74), reveals her awareness that no good Puritan would venture forth from the Christian security of his home on this particular evening, unless he was up to no good. In spite of all this, we see only “melancholy” in Faith's expression (rather than sorrow, frustration, despair, or even anger) when Brown, having paid no attention to her, proceeds on his way.

Had Hawthorne wished us to see sincere efforts to dissuade Brown, surely he would have shown her persisting in her appeal. That she does not leads one to suspect the quality of Brown's religious faith generally.2 It certainly says a great deal about the kind of man we are dealing with, a man whose faith can provide only token guidance in a predictable and uncompelling manner. Clearly, as Brown does not take his wife's plea seriously—there is no reason why he would, so lacking in vehemence is her appeal—so he does not take faith and all that goes with it any more seriously. Religious faith is to him something “pretty” but lacking in substance or strength, something pleasant to possess but of no importance as a guide to his behavior; in a phrase, it is something to pay lip service to.3

Brown's opening reply to Faith, that his journey “‘must needs be done’” (p. 74), demonstrates his firm resolve in this matter: despite all that has been said about Brown's naiveté, it is plain that he has a reasonable notion of what he is about to do. He knows his purpose is “evil” and that he is a “‘wretch’” to leave her “‘on such an errand’” (p. 75); later, we are told his meeting with the Devil is “not wholly unexpected” (p. 76).

Brown then tells Faith, “‘Say thy prayers … and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee’” (p. 75), advice which says much about his character. First, if he really believes that personal harm can be avoided so easily, he is more than a little naive. But more important, he assumes that all one need do to guarantee salvation is go through the motions of piety by observing a few simple precepts that pertain to superficial conduct alone. Saying prayers and retiring early are far from the most essential means whereby one attains purity of soul. That Brown believes them to be important indicates a serious deficiency in his moral sense. He is unaware that genuine virtue is an inner quality which bears at best only an incidental relationship to one's seemingly virtuous social and religious behavior.

Leaving Faith, Brown reassures himself that “‘after this one night’” of sin he will “‘cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven’” (p. 75), an assumption even more vacuous. No intelligent Puritan would ever have maintained that salvation depended on geographical proximity to another, apparently virtuous person; on a literal level, the state of Faith's soul says nothing about the state of Brown's. But the passage also reveals that Brown thinks he can consciously perform secret acts of evil and return, unscathed, to the fold of true virtue; that by creating only an illusion of piety in the community, while simultaneously doing evil things, he can still be virtuous and get to Heaven. Here, the true core of his morality lies only in keeping up appearances. He does not understand true, inner goodness; his only moral criterion consists in conforming to social postures of which his society approves.

Brown's conversation with the Devil supports the above contention. Here, on several occasions he appears to resist the Devil, and on the surface his resistance seems to speak well of him. However, when his reasons for resistance are examined, it is plain that they do not proceed from a meaningful appreciation of the moral issues involved. For Brown's “scruples,” at least initially, are only that neither his father nor grandfather ever “went into the woods on such an errand” (pp. 76-77). What bothers Brown is simply that in continuing along with the Devil, he would be deviating from the “virtuous” behavior that he believes his social superiors upheld. The nonconformity and unconventionality of his journey prompt Brown's hesitation rather than any real awareness that consorting with the Devil is intrinsically sinful.

The Devil dismisses Brown's argument with a brief but revealing account of his forefathers' hypocrisies. Strictly speaking, the Devil's reply is weak and irrelevant. First, there is no proof that what he says is true. But even if it were, the evil acts of a man's ancestors could not justify his pursuit of a present evil course, as Brown will soon conclude. To anyone possessing even a modicum of moral awareness, this would be self-evident. But to Brown, for whom conformity has been the whole of his morality, the Devil's revelation and its personal implications are difficult to refute. That Brown is shocked by the eye-opening information is understandable, but that he cannot penetrate its illogic suggests his own moral shallowness and the paucity of his moral principles.

Brown doggedly proceeds in his resistance and asks how he could “‘meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village?’” (pp. 77-78). As before, Brown's underlying point is his fear of the consequences of deviating from accepted social mores. What also bothers him is the possibility that he could not conceal his soon-to-be-evil, but true, identity in public, before this admired (and presumably admiring) pillar of society, the minister. In a similar vein, he adds that it would break Faith's heart, were he to cooperate with the “elder traveller.” Throughout, he fears only exposure to those whose respect or admiration he craves. To underscore this fact, Hawthorne does not allow Brown to make a strong moral point anywhere in his conversation with the Devil. At no time, for example, does Brown ever touch on the intrinsic immorality of the Black Mass. Nowhere does he say, simply, that he refuses to go on because it is morally wrong to do so. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention by Brown of the evil involved in Devil worship, because Brown has no awareness as to why it is evil. His only concern is that to behave in such a manner would be not to conform.

That the Devil recognizes this characteristic and deals with it accordingly is seen in the all-too coincidental appearance of “Goody Cloyse,” who may well be a specter conjured up to drive the young conformist to even greater distraction.4 Significantly, Brown, always conscious of appearances, takes “a cut through the woods” (p. 78) so as not to be seen behaving unconventionally. There, he is provided with evidence that would seem to put Goody clearly in the Devil's camp. In one sense what Brown hears is understandably disconcerting; a naive young man has been convinced of weaknesses and failings in a person he has hitherto respected from childhood. But, however shocking or disillusioning the experience may be, there should not be quite the “world of meaning” (p. 80) for Brown in his simple discovery that a respected member of the community may have an evil side or be a consummate hypocrite. Hawthorne's suggestion that Brown has been shaken to the core reinforces our awareness that his entire morality has been based on the public behavior of members of his society. Furthermore, when these behavioral models fail him, he will be left with nothing, his conscience having virtually atrophied during his social indoctrination.

Brown does appear to come close to the truth in his final exchange with the Devil:

“Friend,” said he, stubbornly, “my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. 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?”

(p. 80).

Although this may well represent Brown's closest proximity to the real issue, his speech is deficient, if not in the argument, at least in the manner of its presentation. First, he speaks “stubbornly” rather than from conviction. Secondly, he phrases his point as a question, suggesting doubt of the argument's worth. Surely, Brown's words are not spoken by a man firmly convinced of what he is saying. He does not put his point forcefully (for example, saying “That is no reason”) but phrases it in an indecisive, interrogative form that seems to invite a rebuttal by the Devil.

At all events, Brown has unwittingly stumbled close enough to the central moral issue to cause the Devil to retreat temporarily, there being no satisfaction for Satan in forcing a person into Hell against his will. He retires, and Brown, flushed with smug triumph, does not think of the moral victory he appears to have won, but basks in unChristian self-satisfaction, complacent about what an upstanding citizen he is. His thoughts are not of how pleased God would be with him, but only with how pleasant his relationship to society has become. Hawthorne refers to Brown's meditations as “pleasant and praiseworthy” (p. 81), the sarcasm reminding us that his victory has been illusory.

Brown hears footsteps and again hides, having “deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest, conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither, though now so happily turned from it” (p. 81). Again, Brown's appearance in the community remains more important to him than the inner state of his soul. His purity, if genuine, should have produced greater openness on his part, since, if the victory were genuine he would have nothing to hide. That he does conceal himself shows where Brown's deepest concerns still lie. Even at this moment of apparent strength, he is plainly fearful of his social superiors seeing him in a moment of unconventional behavior.

Hawthorne creates much ambiguity surrounding the encounter with “the voice like the deacon's” and “the solemn old tones of the minister” (p. 81) to make us question what Brown thinks he sees. But Brown, trained to emulate his elders as paragons of virtue, is disillusioned by his discovery. He despairs, “doubting whether there really was a Heaven above him,” despite “the blue arch, and the stars brightening in it” (p. 82). There is no justification for Brown to reach such extensive and dismal conclusions; that he does so reveals again that he has no inner moral principles to fall back on. Brown reacts as if he has seen God Himself on His way to a Black Mass, and indeed in a way he has, for to the unfortunate conformist his human elders have always been his true gods.

We have seen that the only reason for Brown's reluctance to participate at the Mass is his fear of the social consequences should his participation be discovered; there is no evidence that he would not want to go if he knew he could get away with it. Could he be convinced that everyone else was behaving in a similar manner, the only major obstacle would be removed. It is doubtless for this reason that Brown seems at times to be looking for excuses to attend. Hawthorne's comment that the Devil's arguments in favor of attending seemed “to spring up in the bosom of his auditor” (p. 80); Brown's readiness to believe the worst of his fellows in the light of increasingly flimsy pieces of evidence; Hawthorne's observation of Brown's “instinct that guides mortal man to evil” (p. 83) and his reminder that Brown “was himself the chief horror of the scene” (p. 83): all suggest that Brown has been looking for a way of justifying his participation, by rationalizing that everyone else has done likewise. If so, it is not surprising that Brown's next—and least convincing—vision should involve a cloud that he suspects is bearing all the townspeople to the Mass and sounds of their voices that could easily be “the murmur of the old forest” (p. 82). The vision concludes with the appearance of a pink ribbon out of the sky, presumably linking Faith with the Devil-worshippers. But though the ribbon is by itself no necessary proof of Faith's participation at the Mass, Brown by this point is ready—too ready—to suspect the worst of everyone, and concludes that she “‘is gone.’” While this conclusion is flimsy, flimsier still is Brown's second conclusion, that “‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given’” (p. 83).

Brown reaches this conclusion because, having no concept of moral life as involving a personal relationship with moral values, he can conceive of it only as a social relationship with his community; in short, if others do it, to the conformist Brown it must be “right” or at least permissible. It is significant that he gives in immediately after concluding that all the others are on their way. His ensuing, almost eager rush to the Mass is consistent with his earlier conformity, for he is still doing what everyone else does, literally going along with the crowd, and is as oblivious to alternatives as he is to the evil involved; the voice of his conscience is nowhere to be heard. Hawthorne exposes the true weakness of the conformist's morality, by demonstrating how a man, whose every prior act has been based on the behavioral examples set by his society, behaves when he learns (or thinks he has learned) that this society regularly commits acts of evil. Having always conformed, Brown can have nothing but conformity to fall back on. Rather than see that these superiors in the community are not and never were valid models worthy of blind emulation, given the instinctively evil nature of man, and that mere conformity can never be a valid guide of action for this reason, Brown continues to conform to these same models even though he ought to realize that they are no longer worthy. Why he does so is possibly for reasons of security or habit, or because he simply “wants to.” Most important, it reveals his ignorance as to how he might otherwise behave. That Brown is conforming when he rushes to the Mass is evident from Hawthorne's many suggestions that he is actually blending into the atmosphere of the evil forest and becoming indistinguishable from it: his laugh is echoed by the forest's laugh, and his cry “was lost to his own ear, by its unison with the cry of the desert” (p. 84). Brown has become one with his surroundings, the perfect mark of the conformist, by adapting his own behavior to that around him, in “awful harmony.”

The entire spectacle of the Black Mass may well be presented by the Devil merely to confirm Brown's own belief in the ubiquity of human evil. It is interesting that despite the Devil's detailed catalogue of the vices and sins of Brown's fellows, he says nothing that Brown has not already determined on his own. For example, when Satan concludes that “‘Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness’” (p. 88), he agrees with Brown's earlier conclusion that there was no good on earth and that the world was given over to the Devil. As for Brown's witnessing of Faith at the Mass, he has already concluded that she is on her way there; doubts about his relatives have occurred very early in the tale. It is not really surprising, then, that Brown does see virtually everyone; he has already determined that he would do so. Nor is it surprising, given his conformity that Brown is initially powerless to resist. Appropriately, “the minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms, and led him to the blazing rock” (p. 86); as before, since they are typical of the forces determining his every act, they continue to have dominance over him.

Why, then, does Brown resist the baptism, in a final surge of apparent strength? Surely, we have been given little if any evidence that Brown has enough strength to resist. Indeed, we have every reason to doubt his sincerity and to suspect that, even if he is doing the right thing, it may be for the wrong reasons.5 If Brown's resistance were meant to be seen as virtuous, surely Hawthorne would have prepared us in some way to believe Brown capable of such an act. Instead, he has made every effort to demean Brown in our eyes, presenting him as utterly lacking in moral sophistication or sensitivity. Brown is not merely a naive, but basically good, man: he is superficial, cunning, and consummately hypocritical. Why then this apparent reversal?

The only answer can be that no reversal has been intended by Hawthorne and that no deviation from what we have seen of Brown's character has taken place. Close examination of the passage immediately preceding Brown's resistance makes this clear: “The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance shew them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!” (p. 88, my italics). We have seen before that Brown's public image and resulting social status mean a great deal to him. Significantly, he does not resist the Devil earlier, when the Devil promises Brown that “‘It shall be yours to penetrate, in every [other!] bosom, the deep mystery of sin …’” (p. 87). What bothers him is the sudden realization that such disclosure is to be mutual. It is only at this point, realizing that others will in turn see him as he truly is—a wretch—that he balks, and he resists not in the name of virtue but from the same fear of exposure to the public of his true nature (and the nature of his “faith”) that has characterized his every previous action. Still obsessed with the need to protect his public image, even in these bizarre circumstances, Brown resists participation in the loathful brotherhood for the wrong reasons: because he is afraid of revealing himself as he actually is, not because he has seen that such participation is intrinsically evil.

He may also be dimly aware that such resistance would give him a tremendous social advantage over his fellows, for by resisting he becomes himself a pinnacle of apparent virtue, at least in his own eyes. Others may well look up to him, and certainly he will be able to derive great satisfaction from his resistance. Certain events do seem to point to this. Brown was seen before, just after his earlier “victory” over the Devil, as a self-righteous man. Moreover, Hawthorne suggests that this self-righteousness remains with him for the rest of his life, as Brown continues to regard himself as the one pure man in a community of hypocrites. As he shrinks from his wife or shudders at the minister, it is hard not to suspect that he is taking perverse satisfaction from these constant reminders of what a virtuous fellow he is in contrast with other members of his society. If the “goodly procession” of followers at his funeral is any indication, Brown has achieved his goal, having become a respected if not loved member of society. The hollowness of his achievement is, of course, underscored by Hawthorne's brief summary of his joyless life and gloomy death, the latter comment reminding us that he had essentially sold his soul for the social status he enjoyed.

Hawthorne also shows the paradoxical nature of Brown's final relationship to his society. Obsessed by the discovery that his society is unworthy of emulation, he cannot embrace “the sacred truths of our religion” (p. 89) or take succor from the hope offered by “saint-like lives”—true examples of virtue—because there is within his mind no room for such truths to exist, let alone grow. Obsessed with the realization that his society failed to provide adequate moral leadership, he is nonetheless so preoccupied with societal concerns to the exclusion of spiritual ones that any true sense of higher moral purpose is forever beyond him. Brown's relationship to his society, rather than his relationship to God, is still his only concern. Though he turns away from his now-reviled, former social ideals, he can conceive of no higher sphere to which he could turn that would provide him with meaningful, alternative moral knowledge; hence, his despair and gloom and his life-long obsession with his society's hypocrisy.

In a sense, “Young Goodman Brown” becomes as much a criticism of a rigid, conformity-ridden society as it is a portrayal of one man's lack of self-reliance. Surely, had the importance of one's public image and the consequent need to assume social postures not been so deeply impressed on Brown, and had more attention been focused on personal virtue and integrity as things of value, Brown would probably have been able to rise above the Devil's temptation to despair. That he could not is an indictment of both Brown and the society he lived in, a community where the importance of conformity has run rampant, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.


  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” in Mosses from an Old Manse, volume 10 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by William Charvat et al. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974), p. 74. Subsequent references to this source are parenthesized in the text.

  2. The shallowness and hypocrisy of Brown's “Faith” are again emphasized at the Mass, if one chooses to disregard David Levin's “spectral” theory and assume that she is really present. On the literal level, her participation makes a mockery of her plea to keep Brown at home. See below, fn. 4.

  3. Other critics have, of course, made this point before. See, for example, Paul Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” AL [American Literature], 37 (Jan., 1966), 410-419.

  4. For a detailed examination of this possibility, see David Levin, “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” AL, 34 (Nov., 1962), 344-352.

  5. Many critics contend that, though Brown may not have emerged the better for his experience at the Black Mass, his resistance to it was still a good act and speaks well of him. In one of the more interesting recent attempts to show how and why Brown has failed, Walter Paulits has argued that Brown has been tricked by the Devil into failing to distinguish between the knowledge offered him of human evil—in itself not intrinsically evil—and the temptation to make evil one's only good, which is evil. Brown presumably sees the evil of the latter and resists accordingly, but ignores the necessity of grasping the former, and spends the rest of his life in doubt and indecision. Still, Paulits feels the basic act of resistance to be one of virtue. See “Ambivalence in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” AL, 41 (Jan., 1970), 577-84.

Frank Shuffelton (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 44, Fall, 1979, pp. 311–32.

[In the following essay, Shuffelton examines “Young Goodman Brown” in the context of New England spiritual revival movements of the 1820s and 1830s, finding some parallels between revival meetings and Brown's experience in the forest.]

Because the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction so often incorporates historical materials, a great deal of scholarly attention has been devoted both to these materials and to his use of them. Although this activity is crucial to our understanding of Hawthorne's work, our concern with his artful transformation of his sources can also mislead us about the nature of his imagination and his art. Intensive study of Hawthorne's use of history ironically tends to encourage the stereotype of the recluse writer in a Salem attic by suggesting that his working out of universal human dilemmas in historical terms displaced any interest in the immediate problems of his society. Hawthorne the lonely artist is such an appealing figure that it is easy to forget Samuel Goodrich's industrious editor, the worker at Brook Farm, the customs official, and the campaign biographer; he was enmeshed in the issues of his age even if they did not appear directly in his fictions.1

His ability to connect past and present has not been overlooked, but the presence of so many portraits of ancestral Hawthornes has focused critical attention upon the personal nature of the connection at the expense of its social dimension. “Young Goodman Brown” for example has stimulated many valuable studies of Hawthorne's use of his sources and of his family's involvement in persecuting Quakers, killing Indians, and hanging witches, and these studies have considerably enriched our understanding of the story.2 Our understanding can be still richer, however, if we also consider certain intellectual and religious crises of the early 1830's when Hawthorne was writing the story he first published in 1835. The religious revivals of the late 1820's and early 1830's in particular seem to provide a background against which the events of the story take on a more definite shape and a larger dimension of meaning.

At the end of his study of Hawthorne's theology Leonard Fick is forced to conclude, “In the accepted sense of the term, … Nathaniel Hawthorne was not a religious man. He attended church only by way of exception, was unalterably opposed to all attempts at proselytizing, and cannot in any sense be considered a sectarian.”3 Nevertheless, he was an interested observer of other men's religion, most notably that of Puritans, Shakers, and Roman Catholics, but also that of the more conventional nineteenth-century Protestants who were his neighbors and acquaintances. If his tales did not usually deal with their religious extravagances directly, stories like “Earth's Holocaust” and “The Celestial Railroad” provided screens from behind which he could satirize various protestant aberrations. When he looked into that best-seller of the early eighteen-thirties, Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), his observant eye might have been caught by her account of an overnight visit to a camp-meeting “in a wild district on the confines of Indiana.”4 Mrs. Trollope's journey into the forest bears an obvious structural similarity to Goodman Brown's withdrawal and return to society, but it is interesting to note that the religious upheaval she sees in the forest is also surprisingly like what Brown encounters.

No alert reader of “Young Goodman Brown” can miss the tale's inverted religious imagery: Goodman Brown keeps covenant with his diabolical companion, overhears allusions to a young man and woman who will “be taken into communion” in “tonight's meeting,” and thinks he sees residents of his village who have a peculiarly religious signification for him—Goody Cloyse, who taught him his catechism, Deacon Gookin, and his minister.5 When he approaches the meeting in the forest, he hears “what seemed a hymn … a familiar one in the choir of the village meeting-house,” and discovers “a numerous congregation” before “a rock bearing some rude natural resemblance either to an altar or a pulpit” (84). Next appears an “apparition” which “bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New England churches” (86). At the command “Bring forth the converts!,” Brown advances into the dark man's “worshipping assembly,” there to receive “the mark of baptism” (86-88). This imagery is usually understood as establishing Goodman Brown's attendance at a witches' sabbath, itself a diabolic inversion of orthodox Christian ritual. But because of its associations with the traditional New England religion of covenants and congregational meetings, this imagery may also invite us to meditate less on witchcraft than on other perversions of conventional religion. Hawthorne's twilight imagery reflects daylight realities even as it portrays the night's darker visions.

Mrs. Trollope set out not as a potential convert but as a good British empiricist, “determined to see with my own eyes, and hear with my own ears, what a camp-meeting really was” (167), but her possible categories for defining camp-meetings seem as rigidly dualistic as Goodman Brown's. On one hand she “had heard it said that being at a camp-meeting was like standing at the gate of heaven, and seeing it open before you,” and on the other it “was like finding yourself within the gates of hell” (167). Observing the ambiguous scene, she first chooses for particular description two characters who could almost have been Goodman Brown and Faith together before the dark man:

… a handsome looking youth of eighteen or twenty, kneeled just below the opening through which I looked. His arm was encircling the neck of a young girl who knelt beside him, with her hair hanging dishevelled upon her shoulder, and her features working with the most violent agitation; … as if unable to endure in any other attitude the burning eloquence of a tall grim figure in black, who, standing erect in the centre, was uttering with incredible vehemence an oration that seemed to hover between praying and preaching.


After strolling about the grounds and noticing “the distorted figures that we saw kneeling, sitting, and lying amongst it, joined to the woeful and convulsive cries” (170), she received a midnight summons to join the whole camp in the central area of the grounds before “a rude platform” for the preacher and surrounded by “Four high frames, constructed in the form of altars, … on which burned immense fires of blazing pine-wood” (168). Mrs. Trollope's friend, the French artist Auguste Jean Jacques Hervieu, visited this camp meeting with her and supplied for Domestic Manners an illustration showing three of the four fires, the ministers’ platform, and the participants writhing in grotesque postures before it in the half-obscurity of the firelight. The picture reinforces the similarity of this scene to Hawthorne's, where “four blazing pines … obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke-wreaths, above the impious assembly” (84).

After an exhoration by a preacher which assured them “of the enormous depravity of man as he comes from the hands of his Maker,” the crowd began “to sing a hymn, calling upon the penitents to come forth” (171). Just as the hymn Goodman Brown heard was both “familiar … in the choir of the village meeting-house” and a “dreadful anthem” (84, 85-86), the context of this hymn struck Mrs. Trollope as ambivalent:

… the combined voices of such a multitude, heard at dead of night, from the depths of their eternal forests, the many fair young faces turned upward, and looking paler and lovelier as they met the moon-beams, the dark figures of the officials in the middle of the circle, the lurid glare thrown by the altar-fires on the woods beyond, did altogether produce a fine and solemn effect, that I shall not easily forget; but ere I had well enjoyed it, the scene changed and sublimity gave place to horror and disgust.


The would-be converts who next came forward were, she says, “above a hundred persons, nearly all females, … uttering howlings and groans, so terrible I shall never cease to shudder when I recall them” (172). After the dark man's company finished their impious hymn but before the call went out for the converts to come forward, Young Goodman Brown, also caught up in the emotional excess of the moment, thought “the unconverted wilderness” itself was in uproar, but Mrs. Trollope, like Hawthorne himself a detached observer, located the source of horror in the disturbed mental states and shocking behavior of the human figures. She heard “Hysterical sobbings, convulsive groans, shrieks and screams the most appalling, burst forth on all sides” and she “felt sick with horror” (172).

She was most repelled by the implicitly sexual undertone of the comforts offered by the preachers who “moved about among them, at once exciting and soothing their agonies.”

I heard the muttered “Sister! dear sister!” I saw the insidious lips approach the cheeks of the unhappy girls; I heard the murmured confessions of the poor victims, and I watched their tormentors, breathing into their ears consolations that tinged the pale cheek with red.


Mrs. Trollope was not alone in connecting licentiousness and camp-meetings, for charges of sexual misbehavior as a result of revival-inspired emotionalism were a recurring theme in criticisms of the revival movement.6 It should be noted that the “secret deeds” Hawthorne's dark man promises to reveal to his converts are all either manifestly or latently sexual in nature.

After the “atrocious wickedness of this horrible scene” drove her from the meeting, Mrs. Trollope spent the rest of the night in her carriage, “listening to the ever increasing tumult.” Yet in the morning the picture is as different from the night before as Brown's orderly Salem village was from his night in the forest:

At day-break the horn again sounded, to send them to private devotion; and in about an hour afterwards I saw the whole camp as joyously and eagerly employed in preparing and devouring their most substantial breakfasts as if the night had been passed in dancing; and I marked man a fair but pale face, that I recognized as a demoniac of the night, simpering beside a swain, to whom she carefully administered hot coffee and eggs.


Mrs. Trollope's ironic, even cynical, view of human nature in America saved her from having to decide whether she has seen the gates of heaven or of hell, but Brown's naivete gave him ground only for suspicion and horror concerning his neighbors. (The English lady's ironies, however, were used to undercut democratic pretensions, whereas Hawthorne's ironic treatment of Brown made democracy possible in the face of seemingly damning truths about human nature.)

The similarities listed here are the most obvious, although by no means the only ones, and the general structural parallel between Mrs. Trollope's account and Hawthorne's story is perhaps as important as any similarity of detail. As Terence Martin has observed, “the motif of withdrawal and return” is basic to Hawthorne's fiction,7 and in The Domestic Manners of the Americans as in “Young Goodman Brown,” the narrative carries the reader from the order of everyday life through scenes of drastic emotional and moral upheaval back to a re-establishment of the daily order which now cannot be perceived in quite the same way. But even if we assume Hawthorne to have been thinking of Mrs. Trollope's report of the camp meeting, it is clearly not a source for the story of the same kind as the writings of the Mathers or Deodat Lawson to which other scholars have pointed. Historical documents provided Hawthorne with his facts; his point of view and the attitudes with which he shaped his material came from elsewhere. In this regard Mrs. Trollope's account is merely a curious analogy which points to a larger body of opinion concerning religious enthusiasm, a morbid and perverse enthusiasm from the liberal Unitarian point of view with which Hawthorne must surely have been acquainted.

Mrs. Trollope was not unique in the 1830's in remarking upon the demonic aspects of protestant zeal, for her camp-meeting was only a western instance of a wave of revivals which from 1825 to 1835 swept all parts of the country, but particularly New England and the East.8 Hawthorne might not ordinarily have interested himself in the traditional camp-meetings, which were primarily southern and western events, but when revivalists employed camp-meeting tactics in Boston's Park Street Church, they provoked lengthy debates among the New England clergy, both Unitarian and orthodox. These debates over the revival movement generated a field of public opinion which suggested categories of image and situation to Hawthorne and which provide for us a context in which “Young Goodman Brown” acquires richer meanings. To understand the contemporary background which informs Hawthorne's story, we must look beyond the parallels with Mrs. Trollope's camp-meeting, then, to the positions of the revival movement's leading exponent and those of his most articulate critics.

Charles Grandison Finney began the new wave of revivals in upstate New York, overcame initial resistance from more conservative ministers like Asahel Nettleton and Lyman Beecher who vigorously opposed his coming into New England, and by August of 1831 was preaching in Boston on Beecher's invitation. Revivals were hardly a novelty in New England, but Finney's evangelical techniques were both new and widely debated. His “new measures,” as they were called, included holding protracted evenings, employing a “holy band” of assistants to work on would-be converts, praying for individuals by name without their consent, permitting women to pray during services, holding inquiry meetings for the spiritually distressed, and, perhaps most important, using the “anxious seat.” This was a row of seats or a bench placed at the front of the meeting for the use of those who felt themselves under special conviction of sin. After coming forward to occupy the anxious seat, sinners were prayed for and encouraged to make an immediate decision to accept the offer of salvation. The use of these new measures was accompanied by vigorous rhetoric in preaching and prayer, and elsewhere some of Finney's more enthusiastic disciples invented other stimulating techniques. “Every nerve and muscle was called into requisition,” observed one critic of Jedediah Burchard's preaching, adding that as soon as he entered the pulpit, the church “at once became a theatre.” Luther Myrick was accused of using “Profane language such as you are black as hell, The Devil is in you, Hell hardened, God provoking,” and Daniel Nash, “Father Nash,” at one time wore a double black veil over his face while participating in revival meetings.9

According to William G. McLoughlin, “Finney was convinced from his own experience that the use of anxious seats and anxious meetings was ‘undoubtedly philosophical and according to the laws of mind.’”10 Finney's notions of “the laws of mind,” however, were simplistic in a number of important ways, dangerously so from the point of view of a man like Hawthorne who was aware of the complex integrity of the human mind. Finney's new measures were obviously sophisticated techniques for inducing psychological and emotional crisis, but his understanding of how the crisis was to be resolved seemed unsatisfactory. “I understand a change of heart,” said Finney, “to be just what we mean by a change of mind … the world is divided into two great political parties: the difference between them is that one party choose Satan as the god of this world … The other party choose Jehovah for their governor.” The grounds of this choice appeared clear enough to Finney, who could see in drinking, smoking, card-playing, dancing, and reading of “Byron, Scott, Shakespeare, and a host of triflers and blasphemers”11 indubitable signs of diabolic service, but critics not prepared to make these easy assumptions, feared that Finney's dualism was more likely to increase anxiety than to allay it. Albert Dod, an important critic of Finney's Lectures on the Revivals of Religion, argued in 1835 that the new measures, particularly the anxious seats, tended to “foster delusion and create false hopes,” and “should be deprecated as fraught with almost certain evil.”12

Dod attacked Finney from the conservative viewpoint of orthodox Calvinism, but attacks couched in somewhat similar language came from the Unitarian left as well. Whereas Dod and the orthodox feared religious “delusions,” the Unitarian critics were more concerned with social dissension and with increasingly bitter divisions among the general protestant community. James Walker and others in articles in The Christian Examiner began in 1827 to attack the Finney revivals as “extravagances” with a “tendency to create even in well disposed minds a distrust of religion itself.”13 Walker referred to Finney and his associate Nathaniel S. Beman as “incendiaries,” who wished to “have the satisfaction of beholding the fires of religious frenzy, which have flashed up in particular places, spread through the land, to use their own expression, ‘as fires spread and roar through the parched forests.’”14 Quoting observers of the New York revivals, Walker criticized the revivalists’ “pungent preaching” for its crude or blasphemous language, their praying for the unconverted by name as a libel on the character of good men, and their inquiry meetings as nocturnal excesses designed to stimulate unhealthy emotions. “They are generally, if not always, held in the night. The room is darkened, so that persons can only see to walk and discover each other, and the reign of universal silence is interrupted only by now and then a dolorous groan from different parts of the room.”15

The result of all this religious frenzy as Walker saw it was “division and estrangement of families, a neglect and contempt of the social duties, the ascendancy of men of coarse and vulgar minds.”16 Little wonder that some men ascribed the revivalists’ abuses of decency to “the direct and preternatural agency of the evil one.” Although Walker himself as a rational Unitarian put no stock in diabolic intervention, he enjoyed quoting the Calvinists against each other, particularly when they saw Satan standing at their neighbors' backs. Thus he quoted Lyman Beecher,” … churches must be instructed and prepared to resist the beginnings of evil,—the mask must be torn off from Satan coming among the sons of God, and transforming himself into an angel of light.”17 C. C. Felton, another Unitarian critic, saw the revivalists as “deluded but crafty agitators” who drew “monstrous terrors” from their “exhaustless imaginations.” He was particularly critical of revivals got up among the young, for the “ordinary pursuits of sound and wholesome learning have been thrown aside. The buoyant and throbbing joyousness of youth and childhood have been changed to an indescribable sadness and gloom.”18

The volumes of The Christian Examiner containing the attacks on the Finneyite revivals were variously charged from the Salem Atheneum by Hawthorne and his aunt, Mary Manning, and although Aunt Mary would have been the more likely reader, Hawthorne might have found suggestive material in their pages.19The Christian Examiner articles linked the revivals with both unhealthy, disordered emotionalism and Satanic intrusion upon society. At least one essay discussed the Great Awakening of George Whitefield as an implicit historical analogue to the contemporary wave of revivals, thus pointing to the appropriateness of criticizing the Finneyite movement through historical displacement.20 Whether or not Hawthorne read The Examiner, however, the real question, as with Mrs. Trollope's Domestic Manners, is not one of sources, interesting as that is, but of the climate of opinion. Mrs. Trollope's much talked about book presents a widely disseminated portrayal of evangelical religion, and the Examiner articles reveal an attitude toward revivals which would have been held by enlightened, rational Christians, even non-sectarian ones like Hawthorne. The revivals were such notorious events that Hawthorne could not have escaped a knowledge of them, nor could he have overlooked the significance of the language of terror purveyed by the revivalists and their critics.

If “Young Goodman Brown” is in some ways similar to Mrs. Trollope's account of a camp-meeting, it also reflects the conditions of a revival meeting; the aberrant behavior of the spiritually distressed in the western forests was also induced in those who attended the revivals of Finney and his disciples in Boston and the East. In Hawthorne's version of the revival meeting, Goodman Brown is caught up in a world as starkly dualistic as Finney's where, whipsawed by its polarities, he is manipulated by a quasi-religious leader into an emotional and ethical crisis. Finney exhorted sinners to grasp their salvation as an act of individual will, and the dark man subtly urges Goodman Brown to choose his own fate. The dark man has his own holy band of assistants to guide Brown down the path to conversion, his own anxious seat before the congregation. Just as Finney continually showed the anxious sinner the depravity of seemingly innocent social customs and of any previous religious professions, so the dark man apparently reveals to Brown the evil of even his Faith and promises to initiate him into “the mystery of sin.”

When the diabolic minister tells Goodman Brown and Faith, “Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped, that virtue were not all a dream; now are ye undeceived!” (88), he puts “virtue,” “hope,” and “depending upon one another's hearts” into an ontological relationship—they are not necessarily linked by cause and effect, yet they cannot exist apart. To accept the dark man's promised happiness is to accept evil as “the nature of mankind,” and it is to accept one's almost solipsistic isolation from humanity, for to reject virtue is to reject the essential communal bonds of hope and trust. The community of evil described by the devil is a community of suspicion and cynicism, and as Goodman Brown turns his back on Salem village in order to venture into dark nature and his darker self, he rejects the society which has nurtured him from the self-willed terrors of the imagination. This perception is for Hawthorne the central truth of the story, and it is simultaneously the old error toward which Puritanism tended and the mistake of the contemporary revivalists. Even defenders of the revival movement recognized as one of its possible evils “a spirit of self-righteousness” in which men reject “fellow Christians” for not conforming to their own private visions of order.21 This self-righteousness is a fundamental misreading of the “mystery of sin” which repeats in Hawthorne's own century the error of Goodman Brown. The answer is in the old Puritan truth which Thomas Hooker called rational charity—a recognition of hypocrisy in men but a willingness to accept a neighbor's professions of righteousness when supported by apparently good actions.

Unlike Finney's successful converts, Goodman Brown is trapped in the seat of his own guilt and suspicion. Unable to join the dark man's church, he cannot accept the daylight Christianity of his family and neighbors either, and thus living in a self-created twilight, “his dying hour was gloom.” A Unitarian critic of revivals like Felton might have predicted as much, for showing man the monstrous terrors of sin does not necessarily enable him to become a more loving husband or virtuous citizen. In a well-known sermon, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts,” preached in Boston's Park Church in October 1831, Finney used a famous trope illustrating a sinner's rescue by an evangelist:

Suppose yourself to be standing on the bank of the Falls of Niagara. As you stand upon the verge of the precipice, you behold a man lost in deep reverie, approaching its verge, unconscious of his danger. He approaches nearer, until he actually lifts his foot to take the final step that shall plunge him in destruction. At this moment you lift your warning voice above the roar of the foaming waters and cry out, Stop. The voice pierces his ear and breaks the charm that binds him; he turns instantly upon his hell, all pale and aghast, quivering from the verge of death.22

Finney thought the dream-walker was successfully awakened, but a more skeptical reading of the passage reveals that he is still “pale and aghast”; if turned from inevitable commitment to destruction, he is still “on the verge of death” and not yet returned to safety. The voice that stops Brown is less clearly providential, but when he awakes, his cheek “besprinkled … with the coldest dew” (88), he too is still on the brink, a position from which he is unable to find an easy retreat.

In making Brown's own voice break the binding charm, Hawthorne is surely a better psychologist than Finney was in his illustrative trope. He recognizes the integrity of dreaming and waking consciousness, the singular identity of the conscious and the subconscious, and he knows that dreams are in their own manner the result of the same will that leads to daylight actions. Finney and the revivalists in their eagerness to simplify man's answer to the evangelical call extended their moral dualism to consciousness itself; one either slept or waked, knew the mystery of sin or didn’t. Finney's moral and psychological dualism recognized no middle ground, but in “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne shows us the twilight regions in which our imaginations are most intensely alive and in which we must make our profoundest moral decisions. For Hawthorne our ability to live in this middle world defines our humanity, and we can resolve the anxiety inherent in this situation only by hope and love rather than by willing ourselves toward impossible absolutes.

We should not, however, conclude that the story is about the revivals any more than we should conclude that it is about his own family or about Salem witchcraft. David Levin has reminded us, “By recognizing that Hawthorne built ‘Young Goodman Brown’ firmly on his historical knowledge, we perceive that the tale has a social as well as an allegorical and a psychological dimension.”23 If beginning with the tale's historical dimension leads us to a recognition of its social implications, our examination of the story's social context must lead us back to an enriched understanding both of its other dimensions and of the nature of Hawthorne's art. By seeing that the story's meaning has an anchor in a specific social situation in Hawthorne's nineteenth-century present, we understand the balancing power of the specific richness of the story's historical knowledge as detailed by so many scholars. Hawthorne can thus simultaneously comprehend the nature of the past and shed light on the present while avoiding the literary equivalent of historicism and presentism: his past does not determine the present nor his present the past.24 The tale's fidelity both to the Puritan experience and to the revival experience thus allows it to draw direction-finding lines upon ahistorical truths of the human heart, for the tale is about neither Puritan nor revivalist situations but about the human situation as portrayed in the universal terms of art.

James W. Clark, Jr. is undoubtedly right when he claims Hawthorne saw “that in the shades of the forest existed a storyteller's complex world.”25 Hawthorne's imagination worked upon what he learned from looking within himself, what he learned from his researches into the world that had gone before, and what he learned from looking at the world about him. His best stories like “Young Goodman Brown” synthesize from the complete range of his experience in order to substitute the mystery of art for the mystery of sin.26 If his imagination in his best work most frequently found itself at home in dealing with historical materials, it is an imagination solidly grounded in his present, and no understanding of his fiction can be complete unless it understands both that present and that past.


  1. Although scholars are long past believing in the recluse Hawthorne, most studies of his social interests focus on the last decade and a half of his career, e.g., Lawrence Sargent Hall, Hawthorne, Critic of Society, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944) and Terence Martin, “Hawthorne’s Public Decade and the Values of Home,” American Literature, 46 (1974), 141–152.

  2. For a recent survey of the scholarship, see James W. Clark, Jr., “Hawthorne's Use of Evidence in ‘Young Goodman Brown’,” Essex Institute Historical Collections, 111 (1975), 12. A step beyond the articles in Clark's list is Michael Colacurcio's “Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’,” Essex Institute Historical Collections, 110 (1974), 259-299, which argues that the issue of specter evidence determines the tale's “ultimate psychological meaning” and that “from ‘Alice Doane’ straight through his unfinished romances Hawthorne allowed the Puritan language of the ‘invisible world’ to determine his vocabulary and set the limits to his own psychological investigations,” p. 261.

  3. Leonard J. Fick, The Light Beyond, A Study of Hawthorne's Theology (Westminster, Maryland: Newman, 1955), p. 155.

  4. Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Donald Smalley (New York: Knopf, 1949), p. 167. Further quotations from Mrs. Trollope will be identified parenthetically in the text. See Smalley's Introduction, pp. vii-x, for a discussion of the wide circulation of the book. When Hawthorne met Thomas Adolphus Trollope in Florence on 27 June 1858, he referred to him in his note book as “the son, I believe, of Mrs. Trollope, to whom America owes more for her shrewd criticisms than we are ever likely to repay.” The French and Italian Notebooks, ed. Thomas Woodson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980), p. 339. This comment, unfortunately, does not establish when Hawthorne read her “criticisms.”

  5. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses From an Old Manse, Centenary Edition (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974), pp. 79, 81. Further quotations from “Young Goodman Brown” will be identified parenthetically in the text.

  6. See Charles S. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, 1826-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), p. 93.

  7. Martin, “The Method of Hawthorne's Tales,” in Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. J. Donald Crowley (New York: McGraw, 1975), p. 17. The essay originally appeared in Hawthorne Centenary Essays, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964).

  8. On Mrs. Trollope and the revival movement, the anonymous reviewer of Domestic Manners in the American Quarterly Review, for instance, quarreled with her portrayal of American life, but in a long comment on the camp-meeting chapter he felt forced to agree that she, “unhappily, has too much occasion for sneer and censure. Her description of what may be styled the maladie du pays … is scarcely exaggerated.” He goes on to deplore the “readiness with which the unconscious, the young and timid, fall victims to wild and exaggerated sentiments—startling delusions—gloomy and devastating terrors—the chimeras of a deeply roused imagination” (“Mrs. Trollope and the Americans,” American Quarterly Review, 12 [1832], p. 122).

  9. Quoted by William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism (New York: Ronald, 1959), pp. 133-134.

  10. McLoughlin, p. 95.

  11. Finney quoted in McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, pp. 120, 69-70. This radical distinction was frequently drawn by both sympathizers and opponents of the revivals; e.g. “One of these two positions must be true: either revivals of religion are a work of evil origin and a delusion, or else they result from an outpouring of the Spirit of God.The Christian Spectator, 4 (1832), p. 26. The Spectator supported revivals.

  12. William G. McLoughlin, “Introduction” to Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on the Revivals of Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. xxxviii.

  13. The Christian Examiner, 4 (1827), 242-243.

  14. Examiner, 4 (1827), 243-244. The charge of spiritual incendiarism was a commonplace.

  15. Examiner, 4 (1827), 249-256, 257.

  16. Examiner, 4 (1827), 262.

  17. Examiner, 6 (1829), 127, 107.

  18. Examiner, 8 (1830), 112.

  19. Marion L. Kesselring, Hawthorne's Reading, 1828-1850 (New York: New York Public Library, 1949), p. 47. Hawthorne was in Salem when the volumes I quote from were charged, and books he obviously was reading himself were charged on the same dates.

  20. Examiner 4 (1827), 464-495. Historical analogues were frequently called up. Calvin Colton in his History and Character of American Revivals of Religion (London: Frederick Westley and A. H. Davis, 1832) had a chapter showing “The Connexion of American Revivals with the Spirit of the Pilgrim Fathers.” Spirit of the Pilgrims was also the title of a religious journal generally favorable to the revivals; it began publication in Boston in 1828.

  21. William B. Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (New York: D. Appleton, 1833), pp. 181-182.

  22. Quoted by McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, p. 71.

  23. Levin, “Historical Fact in Fiction and Drama: The Salem Witchcraft Trials,” in In Defence of Historical Literature (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), p. 87.

  24. Michael D. Bell, Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) claims that in his later fiction “Hawthorne becomes increasingly concerned with the relation between past and present” while the earlier fiction more simply “attempts to understand the past,” p. 194. This is a suggestive distinction, yet Hawthorne even in the 1830's is concerned about the relevance of the past for the present. Consider, for example, a story like “The Gray Champion.”

  25. Clark, p. 22.

  26. The relatively inferior tale, “Earth's Holocaust,” may also have some connection to a review in The Christian Examiner. In Boston's Hollis Street Church the Reverend John Pierpont preached a sermon entitled “The Burning of the Ephesian Letters” from Acts 19: 19-20—“Many also of them who used curious arts, brought their books together, and burned them before all men; and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God with them.” Pierpont's sermon defended temperance and abolitionism under the figure of burning the books. If Hawthorne found an idea here, he, like Pierpont, chose to give it an allegorical instead of an historical setting, and his tale is the poorer for the missing element of his experience. This sermon of December 1833 was published in Boston in 1834 and reviewed by The Examiner in 16 (1834), 98-103; unlike the above volumes of The Examiner, however, there is no evidence that Hawthorne checked this volume out of the Salem Atheneum.

Edward Jayne (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “Pray Tarry with Me Young Goodman Brown,” Literature and Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1979, pp. 100-13.

[In the following essay, Jayne presents a psychoanalytic reading of “Young Goodman Brown,” asserting that Brown exhibits classic symptoms of paranoia and homosexual tendencies.]

Hawthorne's almost transparent use of paranoia as an organizing principle has been generally overlooked even in psychoanalytic studies of his fiction. There have been many critical approaches to Hawthorne, but most if not all of them have provided an essentially “normal” response to his paranoid manipulation of experience. It almost seems as if his uncompromising delusional intensity has provoked a variety of normal defenses among those who are sufficiently tantalized to want to deal with it without coming to terms with its fullest implications. By doing so they both accept and deny whatever resonance this manipulation of experience has produced in themselves, as would be demonstrated by their indignation when challenged on these grounds. Nevertheless, once noticed, unmistakable symptoms of paranoia are everywhere to be observed in Hawthorne's fiction, and these can and should be investigated as a pattern of behavior which is consistent enough to justify its independent clinical evaluation. It is Hawthorne's fiction which should be diagnosed, not Hawthorne, his sympathetic audience, nor even his tormented and guilt-ridden characters. Magnificent in its brooding solitude, his fiction literally organizes itself as an intact delusional system which may be tried out for size by its author and readers who are able to share in the nightmarish experience it imposes upon its characters.

One of the most obvious examples of paranoid consciousness in the canon of Hawthorne's works is “Young Goodman Brown,” a short story which is fully as relevant to the central tradition of American fiction as it is to the personal circumstances of either Hawthorne or his readers. The story can be explained, I think, both as a remarkable case history of paranoid aberration and as a “negative” example of the wilderness consciousness which has persisted from Natty Bumppo's exploits to those of the detectives, cowboys and anti-heroes who crowd our media today. The principal difference would be that Young Goodman Brown briefly tests and rejects the adventures to which they dedicate their lifetime endeavors. But in doing so, he successfully exposes the inadequacies he shares with them despite the restraint which supplants material accomplishment with the suspicion and bitterness which he must endure for the greater part of his life. The temporary forest ritual he denies in himself expresses the syndrome he shares with them except to the extent that he is complicated enough to try to reject it.

Briefly recounted, Hawthorne's narrative tells how the sensitive and vulnerable Young Goodman Brown goes into the forest to carry out his overnight assignation with Satan. Faith, his equally vulnerable young bride, pleads with him to “tarry” with her at home, but he feels inexplicably compelled to leave and fulfill his mysterious obligation. Once in the forest he meets Satan, who leads him toward the site where an unexplained midnight ritual is to be conducted. The two of them soon overtake his old nurse, Goody Cloyse, who had taught him his catechism in his childhood. He is shocked to learn that she is on her way to the same ceremony and has been a long-standing friend of Satan on the most intimate of terms. When she accepts Satan's staff to fly like a witch to their destination, Young Goodman Brown decides to profit from Faith's example by refusing to cooperate any further. Abandoned by Satan, who has become impatient with his naiveté, Young Goodman Brown finds himself alone in the dark and listening to voices in the clouds overhead, evidently of other women flying to the same event. One of these sounds as if she is Faith, his young wife, and a red ribbon which descends from the sky seems to be hers. With this discovery he loses his composure and frantically rushes to join in the evil proceedings, spurred on by the voices of two respectable local clergymen riding on horseback to the same destination.

Young Goodman Brown finally stumbles into a clearing illuminated by four burning pines and full of local citizens, many of them from among the most pious and prosperous families he knows. He finds that everybody has gathered and been waiting to perform the ritual baptism of Faith and himself as two new converts into what Satan describes as “the communion of their race.” Only one figure, probably his mother, motions him not to participate, but she seems to be lost in the crowd. Satan begins his invocation before a blood-filled basin when Young Goodman Brown suddenly changes his mind and cries to Faith, who stands next to him, to join in resisting “the wicked one.” Exactly at this instant the entire gathering disappears, Faith included, and Young Goodman Brown once again finds himself alone in the dark forest. The next day he returns home again entirely disillusioned. He does stay on with Faith to raise a family of children and grandchildren, but he can never determine whether his extraordinary experience had been a dream or not. As a result he remains suspicious and embittered until he finally dies of old age still unreconciled with those about him.

Before the origins of the paranoid syndrome are explored as suggested in the story, it would be useful to list some of the many overt paranoid symptoms which occur throughout its narrative. The cause-and-effect interaction between vulnerability and its projective defenses typical of paranoia is carried out in this story in almost textbook fashion, but a discussion of its more obvious paranoid traits seems necessary before launching into their etiology.1 Listed, these traits stand as follows:

1. There is a complete and intact delusional system, an elaborate explanation of events which justifies Young Goodman Brown's final hostility against all others.

2. Young Goodman Brown is pitted against a conspiracy so pervasive that everybody, even his trusted bride, is probably involved. It is only his rigid commitment to virtue that prevents him from succumbing to it, and because of his refusal he becomes alienated from the entire town, a “pseudocommunity” of potential enemies.2

3. Paranoid “centrality” is gained by Young Goodman Brown because his evil communion is supposed to be celebrated by all of society and because his salvation becomes the principle battlefield, however temporary, in the cosmic struggle between God and Satan.

4. There is supernatural interference by powers too enormous to be resisted except by soliciting one in the struggle against the other. Young Goodman Brown is nothing more than a pawn in the “cold war” between forces he cannot entirely understand.

5. Undue emphasis is put upon the exaggerated Manichaean choice between sin and virtue. Young Goodman Brown stakes his life and happiness upon a clear-cut ethical issue, all-good versus all-bad, and he must remain steadfast in his commitment to “the good” despite evil temptations to which everybody else has very probably succumbed.

6. There is a pronounced tendency toward “premature closure” in the judgment of others. We are never certain whether Young Goodman Brown's experience is real, but following his single evening's ordeal he absolutely and humorlessly commits himself to the perpetual rejection of his family and neighbors.

7. The possibility of compromise is totally excluded. Once Young Goodman Brown has made his choice, his fate is determined and no accommodation can be made for the rest of his life with his relatives and neighbors.

8. There is an excessive emphasis upon the detection of clues to expose the truth to Young Goodman Brown about the conspiracy against him: his wife's hair ribbon, peculiar resemblances, snatches of familiar voices heard in the dark, etc. All of these must be sifted as evidence to be used to save Young Goodman Brown from the fate which would otherwise await him.

9. There is an overcompensatory reduction of sexual roles to simplified stereotypes. Women are divided into pure beings such as Young Goodman Brown's mother and threatening temptresses and/or witches such as Goody Cloyse. Unfortunately, Faith seems willing to join the devil's party, so the temptation she represents would bring about his destruction if he didn’t have the will power to withstand it.

10. There is prolonged uncertainty whether events are real or imaginary. Particularly noteworthy are the voices heard in the dark of the clergymen and the women passing by on the cloud overhead. Hearing voices is of course one of the typical symptoms of advanced paranoia, even in a story such as “Young Goodman Brown” in which forest darkness provides a kind of secondary elaboration to justify its occurrence.

11. The story of Young Goodman Brown is told with a disarming candor which emphasizes the truth at one level of interpretation in order to obscure it at another. The narrator is always careful to differentiate uncertainty from the clear-cut truth, and of course a struggle must be understood to occur between satanic deception and the ultimate truth. However, the central issue of the story, Young Goodman Brown's rejection of his role as husband, is kept almost entirely excluded from conscious recognition, as are the more fundamental reasons for his choice through his fear of sex.

12. Finally, there is even a good deal of paranoid imagery to the story. Young Goodman Brown makes his regressive journey along a dark and threatening trail in order to participate in a ghastly ritual dominated by burning pines and a rock basin full of blood. An enormous crowd has gathered to watch his humiliating baptism, but it suddenly disappears to leave him stranded in the darkness. This kind of oneiric intensity effectively puts experience in the service of paranoid hostility through perceptions which confirm one's closest harbored suspicions.

Unmistakably paranoid, then, would be the mood and ambience of the story. The way it unfolds upon itself as a justification of Young Goodman Brown in his struggle against demonic forces offers itself as almost a classic psychiatric case history of paranoid delusional thinking.

But more important than symptoms alone would be the Freudian etiology of paranoia which is actually given its sequential explanation in being traced from its acute to its chronic stages as Young Goodman Brown's story advances from beginning to end. The source of Young Goodman Brown's paranoid circumstances through his unresolved Oedipal fixation is emphasized and reemphasized throughout the story of his ordeal. As maintained by Frederick Crews, the devil is clearly a father figure in the disguise he assumes as Young Goodman Brown's venerable grandfather who has long since been dead.3 Together, Satan and Young Goodman Brown are described at one point as looking like father and son, and grandfather translates into father exactly as Goody Cloyse, Young Goodman Brown's satanic nurse, translates into bad or licentious mother, the willing mistress of his father's designs. Moreover, the celebration led by the father-figure at the witch's sabbath in the woods would simply consist of Young Goodman Brown's ultimate act of identifying with his father through his marriage with Faith according to patriarchal custom and expectations. They are newly-weds, and, as in the case of all marriages, church and civil rites must be completed by an act of intimacy which would impose upon Young Goodman Brown the role his father had once enjoyed with his mother. Of course it is specified in the story that he and Faith have been married for three months, ample time to have consummated their relationship much earlier, but whether they did or not, the forest ritual at least serves as its symbolic reenactment. Sexual consummation obviously seems to be what is meant by Satan, its patriarchal figurehead, when he refers to “the communion of your race,” and all of those who can attend this communion seem to have lost their virginity in a comparable fashion.

Faith makes her conjugal demands explicit at the beginning of the story, “Pray tarry with me this night, of all nights in the year.” Why of all nights in the year? Or of all nights in one's life? Chronological displacement would apparently be the answer—from the passage of a single day, when marriage is customarily both sealed and consummated, to a quarter year, the period of time which elapses between solstice and equinox. Whether conscious or unconscious, the effort seems plain to disguise the crisis faced by Young Goodman Brown, for the story's symbolism would be all too obvious if it were explicit that this ceremony takes place on his marriage night. So it becomes important to specify that the two are newly-weds, but with enough of an interim since their marriage to support the symbolic disguise which might let the story be told—exactly the same use of concealment as occurs in dream formation. Nevertheless, it remains obvious, as Crews insists, that sex is the issue and that what happens in the story is the rejection of sex except for the unpleasant necessity of bearing children.

Sexual temptation is also very likely suggested even at the story's beginning when it is said that Faith “thrusts her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap …” If head at all implies maidenhead, as can be the case in Shakespeare's plays, for example, the young wife displays a forwardness which demeans or “thrusts into the street” her chastity. That she does so by projecting her head from the open door of her house also suggests the cookbook (but not invalid) Freudian dream symbolism of houses as bodies and doors as apertures to these bodies. Through displacement, however, her door isn’t penetrated inwards, but outwards, and this is done by herself, not Young Goodman Brown, courting shame and disgrace in her effort to induce him to remain with her in their house. Her words “Pray tarry with me” which are spoken at this point confirm the licentious implications of her gesture, and her fluttering pink ribbon, emphasized by its wayward personification as something “played with” by the wind, only begins to prepare Young Goodman Brown for the blood-filled basin he later sees into which one's hands might be dipped in the ritual of consummation. Young Goodman Brown's immediate departure despite Faith's seductive pleas expresses his preliminary rejection of this temptation, but without his fully understanding the implications of his action. Then when he passes behind the meeting house so their view of each other is obstructed, it seems as if this structure comes between them—as if the symbol of both community and bodily sharing must paradoxically separate the two in much the same way as his journey to consummate their relationship in a witch's sabbath is what in fact destroys it. Thus the first few lines of the story very likely offer a kind of initial epiphany to anticipate Young Goodman Brown's more explicit encounter with the ritual of sex in the forest's clearing. The way Faith is left behind, waving from her doorway, offers complex symbolization which explains his final abandonment of her on moral grounds at the story's end.

The supposedly dangerous temptation of conjugal love is also plain in the rampant symbolism of Satan's invocation at the forest ritual:

By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bedchamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot. Far more than this. It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts …”

[italics added]

Here the satanic image of a body's penetration and its flow of blood is extended even to the feminine personification of earth, of course suggesting Gaeia, the earth goddess from whom humanity and the rest of the gods originally spring. Interestingly, the specific crimes next listed by Satan suggest sex and parenthood:

… how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for the widow's weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their father's wealth; and how fair maidens—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant's funeral.

In other words, if Young Goodman Brown, a “beardless youth,” can identify with his father as Satan (i.e. “inherit his father's wealth”), he would have no trouble in consummating his marriage to Faith by breaking the hymen and penetrating “the fountain of all wicked arts”—the drink which would “let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom.” Moreover, his infancy would be given its funeral by Faith (his own “fair maiden”) in her little garden grave, an overdetermined image of the womb which suggests both the homicidal rejection of adult responsibility by means of infanticide and a regressive fear of growing up, in this case through identification with the infant corpse. Maturity is simple but fearful. Young Goodman Brown need only divert his filial loyalty from his “good” mother, now little more than a half-recognized gesture of restraint, to his “bad” mother, Goody Cloyse (“good” becomes “goody,” something entirely different), a witch who has lost her broom and is willing to accept in its place the father figure's serpentine staff. It is this staff, by the way, which Satan repeatedly tries to pass on to Young Goodman Brown as if it were his rightful inheritance, his initiation to the mysteries of adult experience. Once again the symbolism is not only obvious but crucial to the meaning of the story as a whole. Young Goodman Brown's infantile dependence upon a nurturing mother must be successfully displaced to phallic identification with his father in order to benefit from the mature recognition that women are sinners too, individuals with whom sexual companionship is possible. But he cannot complete this transition, and with the result that the parent figures who encourage his efforts to do so are rejected in their personifications as Satan and “Goody Cloyse” (or “delectable cloister”), a clutching and unpleasant witch.

As in the classic Freudian explanation of the origins of homosexuality, Young Goodman Brown's inability to identify with his father is indicated by his unwillingness to accept the ritual consummation of his marriage, and this very probably results from his uncertain sense of masculine identity which arises from his close affinity to his mother.4 It is no accident that he rejects Satan's obviously phallic staff or that the single individual who tries to dissuade him from going through with consummation is probably his cherished “good” mother. It is she who offers the only resistance to the ceremony which would ritualize his communion, and in doing so she becomes his twisted conscience, the brief visual embodiment of his regressive and infantile strivings. This distinction is important: not his father but his mother dominates his conscience (or superego), and in fact her influence preserves him from excessive intimacy with her young surrogate, his bride, who could only disrupt the unbroken bond between the two of them, mother and son, on the basis of dependency rather than mature compatibility. Because Young Goodman Brown finds it easier to identify with his mother than with his father, he is willing to relinquish his patriarchal obligations as family head and respectable member of the community. He does not become an overt homosexual—this too would be evil, even unspeakable—but his confusion is externalized and brought under control by means of a delusional experience which carries out the double displacement of denial and projection typical of paranoid logic as explained by Freud: “Not that I cannot love Faith; rather, it is she who is involved in a universal plot to destroy my soul.” In this manner Young Goodman Brown's insecure sexual identification can be justified by the ever-convenient religious choice between sin and virtue which puts all others at fault, not himself. He can be protected from the discovery of his personal difficulties (as can the reader who empathizes with him) simply by rejecting these others as probable agents of hell. They are plotting against him by trying to deprive him of his virtue, and their designs can only be thwarted through his hostility and vigilance for the rest of his life, “… for his dying hour was gloom.” His single night's crisis thus suggests the “acute” stage of paranoia as triggered by unacceptable conjugal demands, and when it is resolved through his relentless struggle against the universal communion of mankind, his affliction has advanced to the so-called “chronic” stage of paranoia. There is modest relief in having at least identified his enemies, if not in having defeated them or successfully dealt with his own genuine problems.

Young Goodman Brown's infantile expectations in marrying Faith are obvious when he says, “I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven,” much as might have been demanded of his mother. But “good” Faith reveals “bad” faith (pun intended) when she makes physical demands exceeding those of his mother, as is divulged by her plea for him to “tarry” with her because of her uncontrollable feelings: “A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes.” By implication Young Goodman Brown has even more to fear from her than she does herself, and he must somehow find an adequate defense acceptable to his conscience, one which would enable him, true to his name, to be “good” and “man” at the same time. His story tells how this is accomplished in two clearly defined stages: first when he leaves Faith to journey into the world of shadows where her demands might be disguised as satanic ritual, and then when this ritual is abruptly terminated because it is satanic. Of course Young Goodman Brown begs the question by making his renunciation in this manner since it is he himself who raises the issue of sin, but the laws of deduction can be comfortably ignored through the primary process reasoning of delusional intensity which is dictated by his motives. Whether fallacious or not, a doubled withdrawal sequence from his wife—into the woods and out again—is successfully manipulated to be justified by Young Goodman Brown's suspicions and hostility for the rest of his life. Later he and Faith do have children and grandchildren, but their marriage is never really consummated as a union of two kindred souls since Young Goodman Brown cannot rely upon his wife to satisfy his innermost regressive needs. The story of his revelation thus embodies and carries out the denial-projective pattern of paranoid delusions as explained by Freudian theory. There is denial because of his inability to acknowledge the problem that lies within himself, and then there is projection in the moral repudiation of others as if it were they who cause the problem because of their conspiracy to thwart his salvation. Through a sequence of discoveries which obliges this understanding, the narrative of Young Goodman Brown's life shifts from his confused early expectations to a maturity which dispels this confusion, but at the sacrifice of being dominated by gloom and the necessity of ceaseless vigilance against others. As a documentation of this transition, plot itself becomes an elaborate coitus interruptus required by the bizarre ethical pretension of being engaged in a unique cosmic struggle against the devil. In the nick of time Young Goodman Brown is able to withdraw from consummating his marriage, and of course for reasons of profound religious significance.

Paradoxically, Young Goodman Brown first rejects his wife's overtures in order to make his symbolic journey into the woods (often public in dream formation) where these overtures might be disguised to be rejected once and for all as the symbolic ritual of consummation. But his reluctant quest is symbolic of both sexual penetration and the regressive withdrawal into his mother's womb. The choice represented by his passage into the thicket is entirely ambiguous and could have anatomical reference either to his mother or wife, and, as it were, with either a comic or tragic outcome. With a comic outcome Satan could serve as an accepted father figure comparable to Prospero, Theseus, Undershaft and others in presenting the hand of his son (if not his daughter) in marriage at the forest clearing. The warning gesture of the mother would not be seen, and the forest's ritual would end with consummation and the universal harmony to be expected of Menandrine comedy, for example with the concluding marriage ceremonies of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. With a tragic outcome, in contrast, the Oedipal love of one's mother would oblige self-destructive aggression against a father figure comparable to Laius, Claudius, etc.—in this instance by engaging in a struggle of almost Miltonic proportions against the invidious powers of the devil. A young woman such as Faith would very likely not be involved, or, if she were, she too would probably be destroyed, like Ophelia, by the almost cosmic release of Oedipal violence to be expected of tragedy. But of course neither comedy nor tragedy takes place. The story of Young Goodman Brown, notable for its brevity, displays little more magnitude than a parable or bad dream, and what does prevail is a nightmarish enactment of the psychosexual ambivalence which obliges perpetual fear and uncertainty. The apparition of his mother gives Young Goodman Brown the courage to reject marriage as the “communion of your race,” so he finds himself in limbo between two ego ideals, paternal and maternal, neither of which can be exactly appropriated. There is neither identification with this father through the act of consummation nor with his mother through overt homosexual identification. He consequently finds himself in a closet he doesn’t understand and hostile toward the enemy voices which can be heard on the other side of the door. His story tells how and why he makes his decision not to come out of his closet, and once his choice is made his story has for all practical purposes been brought to its conclusion. An abortive transition has been made from a bridegroom's frightened expectancy to the resounding denial of a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.” Nothing is left but gloom as Young Goodman Brown tries to live out his undeclared compact with his mother and no one else, one which falls short of homosexual identification through paranoid denial.

Most of this explication is of course an elaborate reconstruction, and it must be acknowledged that there is no single passage in the story which affords a single global explanation of Young Goodman Brown's problem. However, shades of paranoia, everything fits. Everywhere the story furnishes the necessary fragments of information to be combined and interpreted by anybody who seriously intends to give it the clinical evaluation which it deserves. Typical of paranoid behavior, the story doesn’t take pains to spell out its inadequacies for all to recognize, but instead almost reluctantly discloses these in thorough if piecemeal fashion in the process of dealing with them. It is our task as readers and critics to be able to recognize the overall pattern of experience which emerges organized as fiction. Literary convention might somewhat disguise the syndrome for those who insist upon treating literature as being absolutely separate from personal experience, but for the rest of us the resemblance should really be too obvious to be ignored. If a distraught young gentleman, Y. G. Brown, were to walk into a psychiatrist's office and confide that he had recently talked to the devil disguised as his grandfather, that this same devil had tried to steal his soul in a witch's sabbath, and that he knows from the voices he heard that everybody except his mother was involved in the conspiracy, even his bride—the diagnosis, I think, would be plain: a classic case of paranoia, almost too perfect to be true except in fiction.

Again it must be insisted that this doesn’t mean that Hawthorne was paranoid or even that Young Goodman Brown, his fictive creation, suffers from this disorder. Often in this paper I have diagnosed his problems as if he were a flesh and blood human being with a personality which is complex enough to be fully evaluated in psychoanalytic terms. In fact he is a fictional character, not a real person, and his personality lacks the flexibility and polydimensional complexity to be expected of real people, even the most tortured victims of paranoia. He certainly exhibits some of the symptoms of paranoia, as I think has been amply demonstrated, but these are in large part dictated by his circumstances which are imposed, after all, by the delusional requirements of his story. It is his story as a whole which enacts the paranoid syndrome, and he himself remains mostly innocent of its delusional excesses despite the extent to which his life is dominated by them. Not he but his author and sympathetic readers resort to a demonic vision in order to reject patriarchal identification, and even these don’t exactly commit themselves to such a fundamental decision. The most that can be claimed would be that they make a conscious and/or unconscious use of Young Goodman Brown's example to question, if not challenge, the often oppressive demands which confront them in their own lives. It is their freedom to indulge in this kind of tentative exploration confident that its harmful consequences will be kept pretty much the burden of Young Goodman Brown. So whether he himself projects his fantasies, as maintained by Crews, he certainly exists as the projection of fantasies by others, his audience, and for this reason he cannot be held fully responsible for being paranoid. Moreover, it is to be emphasized that what Young Goodman Brown suspects might well be true in the context of his story. A devil very probably does approach him disguised as his grandfather, and he very probably does allow himself to be led to a witch's sabbath, making paranoid delusion a reality at least as far as he, a fictional character, is concerned. Anybody who is really approached by the devil, as is not uncommon in literature, cannot be diagnosed as being psychotic for thinking so. What he sees he sees, and he must deal with this as best he can under the circumstances. He might live in a paranoid reality, but as a figment of this reality he can hardly be diagnosed as having been its author.5 The victim of the imagination of others, he is ultimately innocent of the problems which have been bestowed upon him. This is of course the typical complaint of the paranoid individual, but in the case of a fictional character such as Young Goodman Brown it happens to be true, and he himself at least has no complaints about his mistreatment at the hands of his readers.

Does this mean that it is primarily Hawthorne and his readers who must be charged with being paranoid? Not necessarily. These too escape the diagnosis, but for entirely different reasons. To enjoy a work of fiction which manifests paranoid tendencies does not mean that readers and authors are paranoid or even pre-paranoid, for it is possible to benefit from this cathartic use of fiction without otherwise resorting to paranoia in the conduct of one's affairs. Disbelief can be suspended by readers without giving any credence whatsoever to the delusions they might temporarily entertain while engrossed in reading a story. The paranoid syndrome can be utilized on a provisional and “literary” basis, and with a pleasure and flexibility not to be enjoyed by the genuine victim of paranoia. Paranoia can be “tried on” for the occasion, and with the total confidence that it can just as easily be discarded once it has made its accounting of the eternal struggle between good and evil, happiness and despair, etc. To a certain extent it does provide the same battery of defenses to the reader as it does to the genuine paranoid individual, but with this important difference: the reader can always set it aside with the fullest confidence that it is fiction and that his life needn’t be dominated by this fiction. Consequently, neither Hawthorne nor his readers, nor in fact his characters, are to be automatically diagnosed as being paranoid, not even for a story laden with as many paranoid symptoms as can be found in “Young Goodman Brown.” As indicated earlier, what obviously can be described as being paranoid is simply the overall action of the story which pits characters against their circumstances in a paranoid fashion, i.e. in such a manner as to cause the paranoid response. It is the story itself which serves as a kind of free-floating multi-purpose delusional system, temporary and artificial, one in which a great variety of personal problems can be brought to allopathic focus upon an intense conflict against hostile forces of one sort or another. By exaggerating this conflict and then bringing it to its resolution, a story such as “Young Goodman Brown” shares the same purpose as the paranoid delusion in its reduction of anxiety levels, but unlike the paranoid delusion it makes itself accessible to balanced and healthy vicarious involvement. Such a story is organized in the same manner as the paranoid delusion, but for a larger audience and with the benign and “normal” intention of bringing confrontation to its satisfactory resolution. Like Pirandello's six characters in search of an author, it offers itself as an intact delusional system in search of whatever audience might find temporary pleasure in its manipulation of experience—unified, intensified, and, as it were, both purposeful and ethically determined.

The final and perhaps the most interesting question is whether the paranoid dynamics of “Young Goodman Brown” are peculiar to this single story or can be found elsewhere in literature. To what extent, if any, can “Young Goodman Brown” be taken as a paradigm of literary experience in general? Can it be used as a model to help explain and understand other works of fiction? And, more specifically, does it have any special relevance to the central tradition of American fiction? There doesn’t seem to be any problem in making such a comparison with the rest of Hawthorne's works, since the Oedipal interpretations offered by Crews, Simon Lesser and others can easily be extended to take into account the paranoid traits which are obsessively reenacted from the stories of Ethan Brand and Rappacini to those of Hester and Zenobia. The vision of Hawthorne's fiction has enough guilt-ridden consistency (described by Crews as “underlying sameness”) to make such an extension pretty much an exercise in belaboring the obvious.

Nor does there seem to be any difficulty in finding parallels with the mature fiction of Melville, especially Moby Dick, which was both written under Hawthorne's influence and dedicated to him. In fact, there are bizarre resemblances and implied interactions which can and ought to be explored in greater depth in order to demonstrate the full precariousness of Young Goodman Brown's desperate choice in life. As Leslie Fiedler has amply demonstrated, Moby Dick displays considerable evidence of latent homosexual tendencies, suggesting that it exceeds Hawthorne's fiction in its resistance to patriarchal identification, and with hostility intense enough to be brought to its culmination in tragic self-destruction. Ahab's obsessive pursuit of Moby Dick leads to his doubly phallic destruction impaled to it wherever it penetrates the seas. More fortunate is Ishmael, who very probably survives because he can lovingly handle sperm (i.e. the flesh of whale) and consummate his brotherhood with Queequeg to deserve the coffin which symbolically buoys him to the surface when the Pequod is drawn into its thalassic vortex of destruction. If Melville's symbolism has enough schematic consistency for the ocean to symbolize the womb and Moby Dick the phallus, denizen of the womb, Ahab's obsession forces his self-sacrifice to heterosexual demands—exactly the martyrdom repugnant to Young Goodman Brown. In contrast, Ishmael, like Young Goodman Brown, is repelled by this fate—and in fact, one step better, he can reject it by acknowledging the homosexual affinities which presumably afford him the possibility of salvation. Melville thus seems to resolve Young Goodman Brown's paranoid ambivalence through the polar distinction between these two figures, Ahab and Ishmael, whose respective fates demonstrate the inverted carpe diem theme that homophobic repression can only bear self-destructive consequences. If a novel could offer itself as an exemplum to a short-story character, the message of Moby Dick to Young Goodman Brown would very probably be that he remove himself from his closet by similarly purging himself of the potentially tragic homophobic impediments which still clutter his imagination. But of course such a recommendation would be particularly repulsive to Young Goodman Brown, even more so than the witch's sabbath he declines.

It is obvious that Melville identifies with Ishmael (he begins Moby Dick by telling the reader, “Call me Ishmael”), and, interestingly enough, there is a close resemblance between Ahab and Hawthorne as described by Melville in his correspondence with Hawthorne and in his laudatory review “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” where his praise is clearly suggestive of the portrait of Ahab in Chapter XVI. Melville likewise describes Hawthorne in one of his letters with almost exactly the same words as he uses to describe Ahab: “There is a grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the devil himself cannot make him say yes.” This, we recall, is also suggestive of Young Goodman Brown's rejection of Satan at the forest ceremony. In another of his letters to Hawthorne, Melville also consecrates his novel with Ahab's baptism of the harpoon in the name of the devil, “Ego no baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” But in doing so he truncates his sentence, “This is the book's motto (the secret one), Ego non baptiso te in nomine—but make out the rest for yourself,” suggesting that Hawthorne, like Ahab (and Young Goodman Brown too), could be expected to know the temptations of the devil. In “Hawthorne and his Mosses” Melville even makes a direct comparison between Hawthorne and “Young Goodman Brown” by paraphrasing one of its sentences, “It is yours to penetrate in every bosom the deep mystery of sin.”7 But of course the ability to make such a penetration does not mean it is exercised, so the ambiguity of “penetrate” (either to “perceive” or “thrust into”) puts Hawthorne in the same difficult circumstances as Young Goodman Brown, torn between the examples of Ahab and Ishmael. If there is any resemblance at all between Hawthorne and Ahab, or between Ahab and Young Goodman Brown, it might indeed result from comparable biographical and autobiographical intentions (contrary to my earlier precautions in this paper), but Hawthorne would have been far less fervid in his satanic obsession than Ahab—much closer, in fact, to the example he himself proposed in Young Goodman Brown, and even here the resemblance was probably slight. Melville's implied equation nevertheless stands. If Ishmael could have stepped across the boundaries of fiction to suggest that Young Goodman Brown might “tarry” with him, the latter could be expected to have become instantly transmogrified into another Captain Ahab, peg leg and all. “No, in thunder,” he too would have cried, but without plunging to tragic destruction into his own ocean's vortex, mother of life itself. Nor could he even have drunk the more modest glass of poison suggested by Hawthorne's Satan. It was his fate to remain torn between the examples of Ahab and Ishmael, unable to deal with the choice except as a devilish temptation. Extravagant these parallels might seem, but they are too persistent to be overlooked.

What relevance is there beyond Melville of the paranoid example offered by Young Goodman Brown to the continuity of the American literary imagination? Are there any other connections besides this one brief and remarkable instance of personal friendship which seems to have been documented and thereby terminated through the agency of fiction? More, I think, than might be immediately recognized, for Young Goodman Brown epitomizes our national rejection of patriarchal responsibility by means of a regressive dedication to frontier conflict which has been insightfully explored by Fiedler and others in their studies of American fiction. Like Young Goodman Brown, the typical frontier hero offers the reader his escape from domestic priorities through a wilderness quest in which Oedipal difficulties can be projected as if these were an external crisis to be brought to its satisfactory resolution. Young Goodman Brown is perhaps unique as a “negative” example since he confronts the wilderness just once, and very briefly, before returning home to the obligations he must fulfill but cannot entirely accept. As opposed to the seasoned frontiersman, he makes what amounts to a one-night stand, and the farthest he penetrates (both bodily and conceptually) is the clearing where ritual hell-fire provides the turning point in his life. For these others much longer journeys can be undertaken precisely because their Oedipal crisis has been better disguised, more effectively rendered as an issue of frontier survival. As a result, story becomes more optimistic as a repetitive-compulsive pursuit of victory against enemies, personal weaknesses, and a variety of bigger forces to be encountered under western skies. Moreover, the charming but vacuous integrity of the frontiersman can be repeatedly proved as he challenges and extends the unique boundaries of our national consciousness exactly as predicted by Frederick Jackson Turner, if in strictly psychosexual terms with the fruits of emotional paucity absorbed through paranoid frontier victory. In popular culture this frontiersman later becomes the detective whose innocent sophistication at last prevails against sinister schemes to make a “fall guy” of him, then an equally innocent Joe Citizen who is caught in the struggle against communism, international conspiracy, or even a berserk CIA, but who is likewise protected from destruction by his almost regressive integrity. Whatever his persona, he resembles Young Goodman Brown in being saved by his innocence from destructive powers he cannot fully understand—powers which in fact embody and epitomize the latent tendencies his readers must reject in themselves through their compensatory dedication to virtue, justice, and cosmic righteousness.

If such a hero seems to be more capable of spectacular accomplishments than Young Goodman Brown, he nevertheless suffers from the same deficiency in self-awareness and personal integration. Equally important, he almost inevitably falls victim to the same inability to form mature emotional attachments with women, and with little talent for coping with this inadequacy except through profligacy or Platonic admiration—or, in extreme cases, through his sublimation of sexual confusion into a compensatory dedication to violence. This is true of Natty Bummpo, Huck Finn, and all the rest of the pantheon of American heroes in both the high and low media—even Gatsby and Jake Barnes, Rabbit Angstrom and Augie March, Benny Profane and Humbert Humbert. Like Young Goodman Brown, each seems to be dominated by the regressive search for a Faith too elusive to be put (or kept) on her pedestal. Without skirts to cling to or anybody to follow to heaven, they can only pursue an impotent wilderness quest whose unconscious intentions cannot possibly be accomplished, let alone recognized. Excitement usurps the responsibility incurred by patriarchal identification, a substitution that seems entirely justified by the unhappy example of Young Goodman Brown. The emotional deadlock is perhaps broken which reduces Hawthorne's to chronic anger and suspicion, but vestigial paranoid defenses do remain which are just as much an avoidance of Satan's blood covenant. For this reason Young Goodman Brown should be recognized (at least by psychoanalytic critics) as perhaps the most remarkable of the “negative” archetypes which define the American vision. Hundreds of years before its mythic frontier finally closes in upon itself, he tests its perimeter, judges possibilities, and finds it a “dream of evil omen,” one which must bring him to his dying hour a distrustful, if not a desperate man.


  1. The paranoid organization of narrative structure is more thoroughly discussed in my articles, “Defense of the Homophobic Imagination,” College English, vol. 37, no. 1 (Sept., 1975), pp. 62-67a, and “The Dialectics of Paranoid Form,” Genre, 11 (spring, 1978), pp. 131-157. A roughly comparable application to poetry is made in my earlier article, “Up against the ‘Mending Wall’: The Psychoanalysis of a Poem by Frost,” College English, vol. 34, no. 7 (April, 1973), pp. 934-951.

  2. Norman Cameron, “The Paranoid Pseudo-Community,” American Journal of Sociology, 49:32, 1943; “The Paranoid Pseudo-Community Revisited,” American Journal of Sociology, 64:52, 1959. Also useful as introductory references are Norman Cameron's “Paranoid Conditions and Paranoia,” in American Handbook of Psychiatry, ed. by Silvano Arieti, vol. I (New York, 1959), pp. 508-539; and The Paranoid, by David Swanson, Philip Bohnert, and Jackson Smith (Boston, 1970).

  3. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (Oxford, 1966), pp. 98-106.

  4. Young Goodman Brown's characterization effectively meshes Freud's explanation of homosexuality in Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence and his explanation of paranoia as repressed homosexuality in his study of Schreber, Psycho-analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides). Seldom is the connection quite so plain either in fiction or the personality of genuine victims of paranoia.

  5. It would be tempting to suggest that Young Goodman Brown's most natural response to his difficulties would have been to try his hand at fiction, concocting the life and works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

  6. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York, 1960, 1966), pp. 369-388.

  7. Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and his Mosses, by a Virginian Spending a July in Vermont,” Literary World, August 17, August 24, 1850—in Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces by Herman Melville, ed. by Raymond W. Weaver, from The Works of Herman Melville (London, 1924), vol. XIII, p. 140. Also ref. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman, The Letters of Herman Melville (New Haven, 1960), pp. 124, 125, 133, 140, etc.

Harold F. Mosher, Jr. (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “The Sources of Ambiguity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: A Structuralist Approach,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1980, pp. 16-25.

[In the following essay, Mosher uses a structuralist critical approach to focus on contradictions in meaning and on the reader's relationship with the narrator in “Young Goodman Brown”.]

As Jonathan Culler has observed, the structuralist method, based on the linguistic model, should “account for our judgments about meaning and ambiguity, well-formedness and deviance.” The structuralist critic studies the conventions of any system that enables its signs to produce meaning or certain effects. He does not primarily study meaning or seek to formulate new interpretations; rather he examines how meaning or effects are achieved.1 In such analyses, of course, consideration of meaning cannot be ignored. Thus, Claude Lévi-Strauss, by a method that consists of “dividing the syntagmatic sequence into superposable segments, and in proving that they constitute variations on one and the same theme,” studies patterns of opposition that produce meaning in myths.2 A. J. Greimas has developed the “semiotic square” to account for even more complex relations governed by the principles of contradiction and contrariness.3 Similarly, a structuralist reading of Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown,” rather than revealing new meaning, concentrates on how the story produces its ambiguities as well as how it suggests an unambiguous meaning. Using Lévi-Strauss' method, I propose to examine the structure of oppositions in the syntagmatic chain, and adapting other structuralist methods suggested by Gérard Genette, Gerald Prince, and Seymour Chatman,4 I shall study the contradictions of meaning between and within the unmediated and mediated elements of the discourse, essentially involving the reader's relationship with the narrator and the characters.

Certainly the ambiguity that has created so much critical debate, resulting most obviously from the narrator's refusal to answer his own question about Brown's dream, is real. “Young Goodman Brown” is not unique in this respect in Hawthorne's corpus, sharing at least its moral ambiguity with that in such other major works as “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and The Scarlet Letter.5 In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne, like his admirer Henry James, tries to create in his readers the same moral ambiguity that confronts his characters while suggesting, often very subtly, the implied author's judgments. Contradictions abound, leading in the imperfect reader (the “narratee” in Gerald Prince's terms)6 to a confusion similar to the one Brown feels, but at the same time much evidence indicates the implied author's condemnation of Brown's final behavior.

In making these conclusions, I am, of course, not alone. Many critics have pointed out that the ambiguities of the story make a judgment about Brown's condemnation of his fellow villagers virtually impossible.7 On the other hand, while some think that Brown did experience the forest events and is right in his condemnation of the villagers, still others believe that Brown dreamed or imagined the forest events and is wrong in his condemnation. Sheldon W. Liebman's 1975 article on the story, with which I am basically in agreement, provides a succinct classification of the studies subscribing to these three views and then, while recognizing the story's “diverting ambiguities” on unresolvable and relatively unimportant issues, argues that the story is unambiguous, if one attends closely to point of view, in showing Brown to be a victim of his own thoughts.8 Liebman, however, provides no clear basis for distinguishing the narrator's point of view from Brown's, claiming that by the principle of “dissimulated point of view” the focus shifts “imperceptibly from narrator to character so that the reader sees through the character's eyes even when he thinks he is seeing through the narrator's” (p. 158). Though Liebman is right in pointing out the many verbs indicating Brown's perception of the action after he leaves Faith, his generalization that thenceforth Hawthorne reports subjective action as if it were objectively happening is open to question and is in fact contradicted, as shall be seen, by Liebman himself. One might, for example, agree with Liebman that the adjective “excellent” describing Brown's” “resolve” as he hurries into the forest could represent Brown's interest point of view9 (or it could, as Richard H. Fogle claims,10 express the narrator's irony), but the following remark about the solitary traveller is evidently the narrator's editorial, identified by its generalizing sense and use of the present tense: “and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.”11

A similar claim to Liebman's that the action of the central part of the story is seen exclusively from Brown's point of view is made by Thomas F. Walsh, Jr., who believes, however, that a study of point of view throws no light on the ambiguities.12 But Walsh mistakenly identifies the narrator's editorial on man's instinct for evil as Brown's thought and then contradicts his claim for the consistency of Brown's point of view by ascribing to “Hawthorne” the judgment of Brown as “the chief horror” (pp. 334-335). Likewise, David Levin identifies the point of view as Brown's in the paragraph describing the baptism preparations where a shift to the narrator's point of view at least temporarily occurs in the description of Brown's and Faith's hesitating on the verge of evil. Levin argues from the assumption of consistency in point of view, but even a Jamesian consistency involves switches from the central consciousness to the narrator.13 Agreeing with Levin, Darrel Abel compares Brown's sole authority to the governess' in James' The Turn of the Screw, “verifiable by no other observer or ‘control.’”14 But The Turn of the Screw is told in the first person, not in the third-person selective omniscient mode of “Young Goodman Brown.” Furthermore, if the action is viewed exclusively from Brown's point of view, we have to accept such contradictions as his revering his father while picturing him in the devil's guise, as E. Arthur Robinson observes.15 Although in dreams such contradictions can occur, the text does not clearly set off the real world from the dream world. Even if we were to accept the forest episode as the dream, the narrator's voice and focus are still present periodically throughout the discourse and are distinguishable, at least in many places, from Brown's.

To neglect the switches in point of view which can reveal the narrator's presence and interpretation is to ignore what Leo Levy describes as the mixed realistic/objective and allegorical/subjective nature of the tale whose narrator “moves into Brown's state of mind and then outward” elusively.16 Although many of these critics' conclusions about the tale's meaning are not invalid, often their analyses of Hawthorne's techniques would benefit from more attention to detail. To examine these techniques in greater depth, I plan to analyze not only the story's structure but also its point of view and particularly what Genette calls “paralipses,” omissions by the omniscient narrator (p. 212). Agreeing with much recent criticism, I assume that the implied author intends certain ambiguities because he allows his narrator to leave them unresolved, especially the one on the nature of the action in the forest. I shall also argue that the condemnation of Brown is relatively unambiguous. What I propose to study are the methods by which both the ambiguities and the condemnation are conveyed to the reader.

I will begin with probably the greatest source of ambiguity in “Young Goodman Brown”—the unmediated or nonnarrated parts, what characters say and think about themselves and each other and what characters do, as recorded by a relatively “absent” narrator. In Chatman's terminology, the narrator may be either “overt”—describing, summarizing, characterizing, judging, generalizing, and commenting on the discourse (pp. 219-253)—or “covert”—reporting characters' words and thoughts in indirect discourse and its variations (pp. 196-219)—or “absent”—reporting characters' words and thoughts in direct discourse and its variations. This last is considered unmediated narration whereas the first two are mediated (pp. 146-194). The story's beginning emphasizes by dramatic (unmediated) interpretation or characterization the moods of Faith, Brown's wife. The message that the narratee receives directly from her speech is that she is “troubled” and “afeared of herself” for this “of all nights in the year,” and her parting husband also analyzes directly her mood in his thoughts as “melancholy” and troubled by the warnings of her dreams. Furthermore, Brown characterizes Faith as an “angel,” in contrast to himself, whom he dramatically and indirectly characterizes as temporarily belonging to another persuasion, at least until the morrow (pp. 74-75).17 This portrait of the wife concerned for her husband seems to accord with the vision of Faith joyfully welcoming Brown the next morning on his return, but her concern for her own steadfastness might just as well be indirectly conveyed by these remarks and especially by her caution to Brown, “may you find all well when you come back” (p. 74). These stasis statements not only expose ambiguous traits and moods of existents (characters), but at the same time project by implied prolepsis (flashforward) events in the future of the plot and thus create suspense, another from of uncertainty.18 Of what is Faith afraid? What will possibly change the next day's situation?

Brown's character traits are even more evidently self-contradictory, paradigmatically, and are presented, at least dramatically, in the syntagmatic pattern of alternating oppositions, typical of the story's plot.19 Early he characterizes himself as eliciting doubt from Faith, as being a “wretch,” and as having “scruples” for this “one night” after which he will follow Faith “to heaven” (p. 75). In contrast, Brown describes himself to the figure in the forest as one of a “race of honest men and good Christians,” who “abide no such wickedness” and vows to return to Faith to avoid this “wickedly” spent night and his feeling of guilt (pp. 77, 81). Despite these professions of goodness, Brown continues deeper into the forest, and, confronted with various spectacles of temptation to pursue evil, he embraces the opportunity to follow the call of the wilderness and identifies with the brotherhood of the wicked, having found his true nature, as the witch minister tells him, inherited from his grandfather and father. The last macro-episode or large segment in the syntagmatic chain shows Brown again resisting evil, or what he considers to be evil, in the form of his fellow citizens, including Faith.

The flat characters, who tend to be part of the setting in accordance with Chatman's distinction between bona fide characters and named but unimportant ones (p. 141), are also characterized contradictorily by unmediated or dramatic means. Brown calls Deacon Gookin and the minister “holy” and Goody Cloyse “pious and exemplary” (pp. 82, 78). Again, however, in the typical pattern of alternating contrasts, this portrait of the villagers is contradicted by framing sets of dramatic characterizations, which picture Cloyse's and Brown's ancestors as friends of the devil in the earlier part of the plot and, in the final part, the deacon and minister as involved in “deviltry” and the whole village as steeped in sin.20 Finally, the devil is somewhat less ambiguously characterized, the syntagmatic pattern being a simple two-part opposition between his first appearance in “grave and decent attire” in the person of Brown's grandfather (as is learned later from Goody Cloyse) and his gradual identification as the devil until he is directly named so by Cloyse. By such contradictory dramatic characterizations, the story and discourse involve the narratee in the moral ambiguities confronting Brown.

According to the conventions of most nineteenth-century fiction, the implied reader could usually count on the omniscient reliable narrator to convey overtly through the narratee the “truth” of the narrative, as the implied author intends it. This is not entirely the case in Hawthorne's tale, beginning with the overtly mediated interpretation of Faith, who is “aptly named.” The narratee might accept this trait only up to a certain point in the plot; after the cloud, which seems to Brown to contain Faith's voice, has passed overhead, something flutters down, and Brown “beheld a pink ribbon.” The mystery is resolved for Brown, who decides on the basis of this ocular evidence that his “Faith is gone” (p. 83). To the narratee caught up in the excitement of this discovery, the evidence of Faith's guilt might also be convincing, but a narratee closer to the implied reader might look more analytically at the point of view and decide that this token of Faith's infidelity is perceived through Brown's interest point of view and therefore is not evidence for a “fact” of the ribbon's existence. The narrator has only reported that “something fluttered lightly down.”21 This more perceptive narratee might take the description of the ribbon as the narrator's report of what Brown thinks he sees; that is, the narrator is reliable in characterizing Faith as “aptly named” and in reporting strictly what happens in Brown's mind, though the narrator does not comment on the “truth” of those thoughts. A sort of paralipsis has occurred.22

Thus the contradictions that seem to abound in the narrator's characterizations and judgments of the Salem villagers may turn out not to be his self-contradictions at all when the point of view is scrutinized. For example, Goody Cloyse is judged to be “pious” (p. 78) and an “excellent old Christian” (p. 89); the “good old minister” is characterized as a “venerable saint” (p. 88). When elsewhere these citizens are called “fiend worshippers” (pp. 87, 88), point of view plays an ambiguous role. Although the judgment of Cloyse as “pious” might very well be Brown's, these other characterizations could be either Brown's or the narrator's. Likewise, during the witches' sabbath episode, it is sometimes not clear whether the action is seen through Brown's eyes or the narrator's. By the omnitemporal analeptic (Genette's term for flashback, p. 82) and proleptic description of these very faces' devout and benign looks, the point of view seems to be the narrator's, but if so, he is describing only the appearance of faces, not necessarily character. Even the presence of the governor's wife is qualified by the narrator's dubious “Some affirm” (p. 85). After the narrator asserts the presence of other Salem villagers including “high dames” and “church members of … especial sanctity,” he leaves their attendance at the ceremony open to question by switching to Brown's “bedazzled” (p. 85) point of view. The physical, metaphysical, and moral confusions continue as the narratee must reconcile the presence of these people at a witches' sabbath with the narrator's characterization of them as “grave, reputable, and pious” (p. 85). Moreover, in this passage, the narrator uses the very terms—“Good old Deacon Gookin” and “venerable saint”—in which he describes the same characters as they appear in Salem the next day (pp. 88-89). Such a contradiction may indicate the narrator's ironic stance or his unreliability, or it may suggest disagreement between his judgment of the villagers' piety and Brown's conception of their wickedness, or an identification of his language with Brown's in reporting Brown's point of view.

In addition to this manipulation of point of view, the narratee is also subjected to other paralipses. Some minor examples include the narrator's hesitant description of the minister of the witches' sabbath as one who “bore no slight similitude … to some grave divine” (p. 86) and whose “once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race” (pp. 87-88). The narratee will probably recognize him as the devil in yet another disguise. The narrator also hesitates in this episode to identify the contents of the communion cup as being either “water, reddened by the lurid light” or “blood” or “liquid flame” (p. 88). Earlier the narrator had analyzed Goody Cloyse's mutterings as “a prayer, doubtless” (p. 79), as if he were not sure, just as he is not certain about the dark figure's staff: that it could “almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent” “must have been an ocular deception” (p. 76). It is certainly difficult at this point in the tale for the narratee to decide if the narrator is speaking ironically (describing indirectly or implicitly), implying that the staff is actually a snake, or describing directly what is the “truth”—that the form of the staff and the light were deceptive. As Victor Vitanza points out,23 from the point in the plot at which Brown passes “a crook of the road” and sees a “figure of a man” (p. 75), the rest of the action might be recuperated, in Jonathan Culler's term, as a delusion, except that the narrator does seem to assert the objective existence of “these two,” Brown and the figure (p. 76).

In contrast, these paralipses and apparent contradictions yield to the narrator's consistency in his characterization and judgments of Brown, who is pictured as “evil” (p. 75), a “horror” (p. 83), “frightful” (p. 83), “demoniac” (p. 84), and a “polluted” wretch (p. 88). One of the major ironies of the tale should be mentioned. As opposed to Brown's and the narrator's paraliptic ignorance about the outcome of Faith's indoctrination into the knowledge of evil, the implied reader must observe what apparently is Brown's awareness of evil by the end of the plot when he sees evil or thinks he sees it everywhere, fulfilling the promise of the “sable form.” The narratee might be tempted to conclude that Brown's successful quest for evil turns him into evil, as Brown's own identification with the wicked brotherhood and the wilderness attests. At any rate, the result is, as the narrator characterizes Brown at the end of the story, a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” (p. 89), suffering the effects of his search. Does the implied author intend the implied reader to conclude that in a tale of conflicting binary oppositions in the characterizations and judgments of all the other characters, where these oppositions do not exist, the “truth” of the fiction lies? One of the narrator's few generalizations would seem to support this conclusion about Brown's evil nature and consequently mistaken opinion about the evil of life (one delusion leads to another): “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” (p. 84).

But before deciding this matter, I want to look at some of the events, in addition to the existents, both narrated and nonnarrated (Chatman's synonyms for mediated and unmediated). Actually the mutterings of Goody Cloyse and the incident of the staff may be considered not only as integrative indices (signs) of character but also as satellites (minor events), or part of the distributive chain of functions (actions).24 As already noted, the discourse treated them paraliptically. Paralipsis is a mark of this discourse's narrating other events as well and would therefore seem to be, in turn, an indirect dramatic index of the narrator's unreliability or else his manipulation of the narratee, effected by the narrator's inability, on one hand, or his refusal, on the other, to tell what “really” happened. Thus the narrator's discourse is filled with expressions of doubt. For example, when the dark figure gives his staff to Goody Cloyse, the narrator observes that “perhaps, it assumed life, being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to the Egyptian Magi” (p. 79). At first, such an indirect authorial identification of the figure with the devil seems clear, but the “perhaps” modifies not only the “fact” of the transformation of the rod into life but also the reason for that transformation. The narrator might be said to be speculating ironically on a popular explanation of the transformation, if, indeed, a transformation occurred. Or again the narrator tells the narratee that the minister and Deacon Gookin “appeared to pass along the road … ; but owing doubtless to the depth of the gloom at that particular spot, neither … were visible” (p. 81). The narrator ambiguously both asserts the existence of the “hoof tramps and the voices of the riders” and “their figures” and seems to deny their reality with the qualifiers “appeared” and “neither … were visible.”25 Although the point of view here is not always the narrator's, it might well be argued that the narrator is attempting to “naturalize” supernatural events by physical or historical explanations to assure the narratee, at least in this second example, that the figures are people who are there but invisible because of the dark, not apparitions or delusions in Brown's mind. But such reassurances are contradicted paradigmatically by the pervading atmosphere of the supernatural: the miracle of Satan's staff and the “haunted” forest, for instance. Of course, one could argue also that the narrator is ironic and only pretending to convince the narratee that the rod assumed living form or that the people are “real,” while expecting the implied reader to realize that the narration is indirect and that these are phantoms of evil or appearances only to Brown. Or, again, the position that the point of view is partly Brown's, at least in the vision of the minister and deacon, can also be argued.26

Similar to this trait of the narrator's to imply that supernatural appearance might be explained realistically is the “seems” expression. After describing what to Brown is convincing evidence of Faith's guilt in the form of the ribbon, the narrator says that Brown “seemed to fly along the forest-path rather than to walk or run” (p. 83). Here the narrator's incompetence to report what “really” occurred would appear clear because the point of view can only be his. Later he narrates the hesitancy of Faith and Brown before the baptismal font—“there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness” (p. 88)—as if the narrator did not know how many other pairs might also be hesitating.27 But these expressions of appearance could also be interpreted simply as common exaggerations which the narrator expects the implied reader to detect. By far the most often repeated expression of paralipsis is “as if.” The devil, after Goody Cloyse's disappearance, waits “calmly as if nothing had happened” (p. 80). He disappears “as if he had vanished” (p. 80). Sounds are heard, “as if from the depths of the cloud” (p. 82); their echoes mock “as if bewildered wretches were seeking” Faith (p. 83). Again, though, the doubt could be ascribed to the ambiguity of point of view: these observations might be Brown's.

Other paraliptic measures serve the same purpose of confusing the narratee by either contradicting or asserting and denying. As already noted, the narrator will switch point of view without warning. At the witches' sabbath the identifying of the congregation seems to be in the omniscient narrator's register, but this changes to a simple report of what, in an obscure prolepsis, “Some affirm” (p. 85). The same passage continues, “Either the sudden gleam of light … bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church members” (p. 85). The narrator is not sure exactly whom Brown sees, if anybody. Such uncertainty might, however, again be ascribed to the narrator's “naturalizing” Brown's hallucination. Switching from Brown's view, the narrator then offers his own judgment of the hymn in the short generalization that it expresses what “our nature can conceive of sin” (p. 85; the first person is a sign of the narrator's voice), and concludes in another editorial, “Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends” (p. 85). These two generalizations are somewhat self-contradictory in asserting both the common knowledge and the ignorance of sin. Further, the first one seems to contradict a conclusion about the exclusive evil of Brown. But because generalizations, though perhaps inspired by the fictional action, point outside that action, these are not necessarily commenting on this particular congregation. At the same time, however, the generalization about shared evil serves its contradictory purpose of ironically implicating others, including the narratee, in Brown's evil while seeming to place that evil exclusively in the congregation at the witches' sabbath. On the other hand, the narrator, earlier in the discourse, might seem to be asserting the morality of that congregation. With the same phrase, “In truth” (p. 83), he had used to judge Brown's frightfulness as he ran madly toward evil, the narrator replies to Brown's dramatic characterization of the congregation as a “grave and dark-clad company” by commenting, “In truth, they were such” (p. 84). But this is only a comment on the appearance of the multitude and is not necessarily making a character judgment. In the same episode the narrator might seem to naturalize the supernatural fire by describing it to be like one in a clearing where felled trees burn, but he immediately cancels this reassuring, realistic impression by saying that only the tops of the pines were burning, “like candles at an evening meeting” (p. 84). The narratee is continually made a victim of apparently reliable commentary that subsequently seems to be denied but seldom provides a firm basis for a definitive judgment.

Again, though, the narratee might conclude that these binary oppositions serve to emphasize the unambiguous theme that the narrator is only reporting the conflicting delusions of a fanatic's mind. Evidence for this view might include the description of the tempest that accompanies Brown's apparent conversion. When the cloud first appears hurrying across the sky, the narrator says that “no wind was stirring” (p. 82) and later that the sky was “clear and silent” (p. 83), but when Brown then accepts evil and hurries off to look for it, the narrator reports that the trees creaked and the “wind tolled” (p. 83), becoming a “tempest” (p. 84) swelling in the hymn at the Ceremony. After Brown calls on Faith to abandon wickedness, he finds himself in a calm, as the wind's roar dies away. The narrator might intend us to interpret the wind as an objective correlative of Brown's excited delusion or, less metacritically, as part of his delusion.28 Of course, the most obvious paralipsis creating ambiguity is the narrator's raising the question addressed directly to the narratee, suggesting that Brown might have just dreamed this action. On one hand, the narrator seems to answer his own question: “it was a dream of evil omen”; but on the other, this assertion is qualified by the preceding clause—“Be it so, if you will” (p. 89)—as if the identification of the experience as a dream depended on the narratee's decision and is therefore a subjective choice and relatively unimportant. According to the narrator, only the consequences of Brown's experience are significant, being “of evil omen” (p. 89), for the rest of his life and his death were “gloom” (p. 90).

The paradigmatic pattern of binary oppositions or contradictions for the existents is also evident in the syntagmatic structure of the plot's narremes or shorter events.29 In most of the plot, the alternation between the assurance that life in the story is or can be normal, “real,” or good and the doubt or suspicion that it is odd, supernatural, or evil is strikingly regular. For instance, the plot begins with a normal leave-taking, but this normalcy is immediately questioned by Faith's warnings. This is followed by Brown's recognition of his extraordinary errand. His prolepsis about following Faith to heaven after this particular night is undermined by the narrator's judgment of his “present evil purpose” (p. 75) and by the appearance in the forest of the suspicious dark figure. This regular alternation continues until the meeting with Goody Cloyse, during which several narremes elicit doubt about the goodness and normalcy of life. A similar span of unsettling narremes occurs after Brown discovers the pink ribbon, but the alternation resumes when Brown believes that the figure of his mother warns him away from the initiation ceremony. The pattern continues to the end of the plot with such reassuring narremes as Faith's and Brown's hesitation before the baptismal font, Brown's warning to Faith, the disappearance of the vision of the witches' sabbath, and the question from the narrator suggesting that Brown had only dreamed this experience. These narremes alternate with Brown's irresistible attraction to the ceremony, the dark form's description of evil pervading the world, the preparation for baptism, Brown's doubt in Faith's refusal of the baptism, his unusual behavior the next morning in Salem, and finally his ensuing darkened life.

Lévi-Strauss has warned that the oversimplification involved in establishing binary oppositions can result in the contrasting items being changed or distorted beyond recognition.30 To try to avoid this error, I have multiplied the categories to cover different situations: normal, real, and good are opposed to odd, supernatural, and evil. One must also consider that the identification of this paradigmatic pattern of alternation depends on the recognition of the syntagmatic progress of the narremes that fulfill the pattern. Oversimplification results also from the narratee's failure to see the variations within this pattern. There is in Brown an increasing realization of and attraction to evil as the doubting narremes increase somewhat in quantity and, much more significantly, in importance, particularly in the witches' sabbath episode. Another subtle change that the pattern alone does not reveal is that Brown first denies, then accepts the existence of evil in others and eventually recognizes it also in himself. From a patient enduring happenings, Brown becomes an agent causing actions in his search for evil and then returns to being a patient enduring the evil in himself or ineffectively resisting the evil outside himself.31 Ultimately we might say that the pattern of doubt and assurance and its subtle variations dramatize the insidious self-persuasion in Brown, and possibly in the narratee, of the prevalence of evil in the world. Brown, at any rate, comes to an assurance that the world is evil, not good, and at least one type of narratee might also be encouraged to doubt that it is entirely good, “real,” and normal. Furthermore, because of the network of conflicting characterizations, the narrator's paralipses, contradictions, and ambiguous and switching points of view, as well as the pattern of alternating doubt and assurance, the narratee in the end may not be able to decide whether Brown's rejection of the world receives the author's commendation as a refusal of evil or his condemnation as a result of an immersion in the knowledge of evil. I have suggested that close analysis reveals that Brown is responsible for many questionable judgments which an undiscriminating narratee might assign to the narrator, and I have further argued that the narrator's consistently unfavorable judgment of Brown may reveal the implied author's preference for condemning Brown. Whether one accepts this conclusion or prefers, using Wayne Booth's principle of “unstable irony,”32 the interpretation accepting the story's ultimate ambiguity, the structuralist critic has learned, by studying the story's pattern and the discourse's manipulation of point of view, something about the sources and effects of that ambiguity.


  1. Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975), p. 31.

  2. The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 307.

  3. Du Sens (Paris: Seuil, 1970).

  4. Genetee, “Discourse du récit” in Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972), pp. 65-273; Prince, “Introduction à l’étude du narrataire,” Poétique, 14 (1973), 178-196; Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978).

  5. Regarding this problem of ambiguity, and more specifically its source, Edgar A. Dryden, Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Poetics of Enchantment (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), p. 138, notes that in “The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables it is difficult to distinguish between fiction and history, imagination and perception.”

  6. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 70-71, is, of course, responsible for the term “implied author,” the real author's other self, invented as the moving principle for the fiction. Gerald Prince, “Introduction,” pp. 179-187, makes careful distinctions among types of readers and narratees. See also Chatman, pp. 33; 147-151; 253-262, on narratee, narrator, implied author, and implied reader.

  7. Referring to the realistic and the fantastic readings of the story, Charles Child Walcutt, Man's Changing Mask (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1966), p. 126, remarks that “Hawthorne … has interwoven these two possibilities so tightly that it is impossible to show that either one represents the accurate reading of the story.”

  8. “The Reader in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1975, ed. C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr. (Englewood, Colo.: Microcard Editions Books, 1975), pp. 156-169. See Liebman's review of some of the scholarship, p. 157, and also Robert J. Stanton, “Secondary Studies on Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ 1845-1975: A Bibliography,” Bulletin of Bibliography, 33 (1976), 32-44, 52.

  9. Chatman, Story and Discourse, p. 162, defines interest point of view as the concerns of a character, if not actually his vision or thought.

  10. Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1952), p. 31.

  11. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” in Mosses from an Old Manse, ed. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude M. Simpson, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, X (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1974), p. 75. Further references to this edition will be noted in the text.

  12. “The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown,” Modern Language Quarterly, 19 (1958), 331.

  13. “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” American Literature, 34 (1962), 350.

  14. “Black Glove and Pink Ribbon: Hawthorne's Metonymic Symbols,” New England Quarterly, 42 (1969), 180.

  15. “The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation,” American Literature, 35 (1963), 222.

  16. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 74 (1975), 375.

  17. My terms “indirect” and “direct” correspond to Chatman's implicit (ironic) and explicit commentary respectively, p. 228.

  18. For more complete definitions of “stasis statement,” “exposing,” “projecting,” and “events,” see Chatman, pp. 32-33. “Prolepsis” is Genette's term, p. 82.

  19. I am using “paradigmatic” and “syntagmatic” in the usual Saussurean, structuralist way to mean, respectively, the reserve of meaning (particularly character traits and settings) available for the discourse's use and the sequence of actions occurring “linearly” throughout the story.

  20. Joseph T. McCullen, “Young Goodman Brown: Presumption and Despair,” Discourse, 2 (1959), 149 and 156, n. 13, notices these contradictions but attributes them to Hawthorne's belief in the mixture of good and evil in people. On the other hand, without taking contradictory evidence into consideration, D. M. McKeithan, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Interpretation,” Modern Language Notes, 67 (1952), 96, asserts the goodness of the Salem villagers.

  21. P. 83. L. Moffitt Cecil notes the correspondence between Brown's deluding eyesight and his faulty insight as typical of many of Hawthorne's characters in “Hawthorne's Optical Device,” American Quarterly, 15 (1963), 82-83.

  22. Liebman, “The Reader,” pp. 161-162, points out many such instances of objective “facts” being actually only perceived by Brown who, for instance, “beheld the figure of a man,” “recognized a very pious and exemplary dame,” “heard the tramp of horses,” “recognized the voices,” “sees” a black cloud and a fire, thinks he sees his father and mother, and “beheld” Faith at the meeting. Many critics have, of course, discussed the famous pink ribbons, testing their reality or symbolic value. Leo Levy, “The Problem of Faith,” p. 377, argues for their reality on the basis of the “tangible evidence” that Brown seizes and beholds, but Hawthorne's grammatical constructions typically do not allow such positive identification. What Brown seizes is referred to as “it,” whose antecedent is the vague “something” that has fluttered down and which is seen only by Brown as a ribbon. Faith has her ribbons the next day. As for the symbolic significance of the ribbons, the ambiguity of the story has inspired much difference of opinion, as Levy points out, “The Problem,” p. 382.

  23. “Teaching Roland Barthes' Method of Textual Analysis, with an Example from Hawthorne,” unpublished paper given at the Roland Barthes Special Session, Modern Language Association Convention, 1977.

  24. Chatman's terminology, pp. 32-33, 53-56, is borrowed and adapted from Roland Barthes' as developed in his seminal article, “Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits,” Communications, 8 (1966), 1-27.

  25. Taylor Stoehr, “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Hawthorne's Theory of Mimesis,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 23 (1969), 402-403, points out Hawthorne's use of these qualifying expressions in his tales and claims that about thirty of them appear in “Young Goodman Brown.” The purpose, according to Stoehr, is not to suggest allegorical meanings but rather to suspend “judgment on all apparent meanings, which are nonetheless offered as possibilities” (p. 403). This technique (and I agree) puts the reader in the same ambiguous situation as the characters but “with some additional hints” as to the solutions of the problem (p. 406). Stoehr, however, does not give any specific examples of these hints.

  26. Misreadings by critics like Leo B. Levy, “The Problem of Faith,” p. 381, who on one hand seems to recognize the possibility of Brown's projection in hearing “a voice like Deacon Gookin's” but on the other claims that Gookin's words are not offered as “something Brown imagines,” may very well result from a neglect of point of view. The narrator emphasizes the subjective quality of Brown's perceptions by such qualifying words as “appeared,” “without discerning,” “were such a thing possible” (p. 81). Similarly, the other extreme of interpretation, like that of Paul J. Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” American Literature, 37 (1966), 415, which denies the possibility of the narrator's attesting to the objective existence of the minister and the deacon, is equally mistaken in neglecting the ambiguity and the shifting of point of view.

  27. Liebman, p. 159, notices other examples of the “seems” expression: the figure's “snakelike staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy” and the figure touches Goody Cloyse's neck “with what seemed the serpent's tail.” But Liebman claims that the comment about the couple's hesitation is Brown's, not the narrator's (p. 162), while identifying the following comments on the contents of the baptismal font to be “Hawthorne's” (p. 159), a contradiction of his principle of subjective action. As noted before, Liebman does not provide a clear basis for distinguishing between the narrator's and Brown's points of view.

  28. Liebman, p. 163, also interprets the tempest as part of Brown's delusion.

  29. Richard Harter Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, rev. ed. (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1964), pp. 25-27, points out other contrasts like those between day and night, town and forest, red and black, serving as symbolic and stylistic balancing, as well as the thematic opposition between appearance and reality.

  30. See Culler, p. 15.

  31. The relation between patient and happening and agent and action is defined by Chatman, p. 32.

  32. See A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 240. In unstable irony, “the author—insofar as we can discover him, and he is often very remote indeed—refuses to declare himself, however subtly, for any stable proposition.”

James L. Williamson (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil in Manuscript,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-62.

[In the following essay, Williamson suggests that Hawthorne exhibits a gleeful, mocking narrative persona in “Young Goodman Brown” in order to expose pretensions about life and literature.]

When Hawthorne commented on the vocation of authorship, he was often drawn to analogies between writing and damnation. “… authors,” he wrote with tongue-in-cheek in 1821, “are always poor devils, and therefore Satan may take them.”1 The pun is on “devil,” which can mean a literary hack; and the meaning is clear: to write conventionally and without integrity is to damn oneself as a writer, even at the cost of popularity and recognition. “… America is now wholly given over to a d[amne]d mob of scribbling women,” Hawthorne wrote in 1855, “and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash—and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.”2 Yet, going to the devil, in another context, was the highest form of praise Hawthorne could bestow on a fellow author. “The woman writes as if the Devil was in her,” he commented upon reading Sara P. Willis's Ruth Hall, “and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men … ; but when they throw off the restraints of decency, and come before the public stark naked, as it were,—then their books are sure to possess character and value.”3 To write as though possessed in this sense meant to penetrate beneath social convention and to speak in an authentic, potent voice. Such a descent could be liberating (for writer and reader), as well as damning in a personal and professional sense. For when Hawthorne described The Scarlet Letter as “positively a h[el]l-f[ire]d story,” he bestowed upon his Romance his highest praise and severest criticism. A hell-fired story was “powerfully written,” but, for that reason, unlikely to “appeal to the broadest class of sympathies,” nor to “obtain a very wide popularity.”4 To write as though possessed from this perspective was to contend with social and literary conventions (as the root meaning of “Satan” is “adversary”), and a writer who challenged such conventions could expect to alienate part of the popular reading audience.

The personal cost of going to the devil as a writer was earliest dramatized in the figure of Oberon, the artist hero of “The Devil in Manuscript,” a burlesque on the conditions of authorship in America in the 1830's. Published in the New-England Magazine seven months following the appearance of “Young Goodman Brown,” the sketch provides an excellent gloss on that tale. For Oberon has given himself to the devil; that is, his vocation has been dedicated to creating in fiction “‘the character of a fiend, as represented in our traditions and the written records of witchcraft.’” “‘You remember,’” he tells his companion, “‘how the hellish thing used to suck away the happiness of those who, by a simple concession that seemed almost innocent, subjected themselves to his power. Just so my peace is gone, and all by these accursed manuscripts.’” Just so Goodman Brown's innocent venture into the devil's woods and simple concessions to the devil's arguments will end in his permanent loss of peace and happiness. And just so will Brown come to find himself trapped in a world of uncertainties and spectral appearances. “‘I am surrounding myself with shadows,’” laments Oberon, “‘which bewilder me, by aping the realities of life. They have drawn me aside from the beaten path of the world, and led me into a strange sort of solitude—a solitude in the midst of men—where nobody wishes for what I do, nor thinks nor feels as I do. The tales have done all this.’” But Oberon, unlike Brown, is finally of the devil's party. His tale concludes not with death and gloom, but with fire and triumph, as the ashes from his burning manuscripts escape from the chimney to set the town ablaze. “‘My tales!’” he cries. “‘The chimney! The roof! The Fiend has gone forth by night, and startled thousands in fear and wonder from their beds! Here I stand—a triumphant author! Huzza! Huzza! My brain has set the town on fire!’” Oberon's final words affirm the demonic, that is, destructive but liberating aspects of his art as it awakens his neighbors from their accustomed slumbers to “fear and wonder.” Although Brown lacks the ironic, cosmopolitan perspective of the artist, and although he fears the wrath of an Old Testament God throughout his life of gloom, he nonetheless suffers the fate of the romantic writer: a damnation that becomes a salvation (however unorthodox). To examine “Young Goodman Brown” from this point of view, however, we must turn from Brown for a moment to focus on the speaker of the tale, remembering Hawthorne's analogies between writer and devil, as well as between writing and damnation. As we shall see, the devil figures who appear to Brown in the woods will each bear a certain resemblance to the speaker of the tale, or to those characteristics of the speaker dramatized in his voice. The speaker, that is, will show himself to be of the devil's party, and Brown's experience in the woods will come to represent the experience of art, of reading the tale “Young Goodman Brown.”5


At a climactic moment, as he is about to be baptized into the devil's fold, Goodman Brown calls upon Faith to “‘Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!’” Yet in the course of the tale, Brown encounters not one, but three “wicked ones,” each with a peculiar character and distinct voice. The first of these devils presents himself as a casual, urbane individual: “simply clad” and “as simple in manner too,” but possessing “an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and would not have felt abashed at the governor's dinner-table, or in King William's court. …” Adept at the art of understatement, this devil addresses Brown in an amused, patronizing tone as he mimics Brown's own naive pretensions and self-righteousness. Witness the following dialogue:

“My father never went into the woods on such an errand, [exclaimed Brown] nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path, and kept—”

“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interpreting his pause. “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”

(X, 76-77).6

This devil subverts Brown's sentimental view of his ancestral past in manner as well as matter; for linked with the evidence of those ancestors' sins is a satiric, parodic mode of expression that reduces Brown's arguments to a child's recitations. It will be no accident that the second devil figure Brown witnesses will appear in the form of the old woman who taught him his catechism; but just as telling is the first devil's striking resemblance to both Brown's father and grandfather.7 In appearance, as well as theme and tone, this devil mocks Brown's words.

The speaker, too, shows these devilish characteristics; for he can be quite condescending and sarcastic toward his bewildered hero. For example, Brown begins his night experience with the following sentiment about Faith: “‘Well; she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.’” “With this excellent resolve for the future,” responds the speaker in a tone that parodies Brown's naive presumptuousness, “Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose.” And when, deep within the dark woods, Brown sits down and refuses to go on with the devil, the speaker makes the following damning comment:

The young man sat a few moments, by the road-side, applauding himself greatly, and thinking with how clear a conscience he should meet the minister, in his morning-walk, nor shrink from the eye of good old Deacon Gookin. And what calm sleep would be his, that very night, which was to have been spent so wickedly, but purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith! Amidst these pleasant and praiseworthy meditations …

(X, 80-81).

Like the urbane devil, the speaker mocks Brown in Brown's own words. The consequence of this technique is a sustained tone of satire in the tale. To cite another example, consider how the speaker describes Brown's initial reactions to the gathering of devils and witches in the woods:

Either the sudden gleams of light, flashing over the obscure field, bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church-members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity. … But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints

(X, 85).

Here the speaker combines his omniscient point of view that allows him to describe Brown's feelings about events with a viewpoint that imitates Brown's literal process of observation. His “either … or” device dramatizes Brown's dilemma as a participant in the events of the tale; but, at the same time, his melodramatic, almost mawkish sentiments are satiric comments on Brown's moral priggishness: his naive desire to see clear-cut divisions in human experience.

The second devilish figure, a boisterous old hag named Goody Cloyse, appears to Brown in the shape of the “very pious and exemplary dame” and “Christian woman,” who we are told, “had taught him his catechism.” Colloquial in speech, folksy, and something of a gossip (in the nineteenth as well as the seventeenth century meaning of the word) and quarreler, she overflows with a mirthful spirit and mocking wit. The scene in which she appears commences with a pun and verges upon farce as it develops:

“The devil!” screamed the pious old lady.

“Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend?” observed the traveller, confronting her, and leaning on his writhing stick.

“Ah, forsooth, and is it your worship, indeed?” cried the good dame. “Yea, truly is it, and in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is. But—would your worship believe it?—my broomstick hath strangely disappeared, stolen, as I suspect, by that unhanged witch, Goody Cory, and that, too, when I was all anointed with the juice of smallage and cinque-foil and wolfs-bane—”

“Mingled with fine wheat and the fat of a new-born babe,” said the shape of old Goodman Brown.

“Ah, your worship knows the receipt,” cried the old lady, cackling aloud. “So, as I was saying, being all ready for the meeting, and no horse to ride on, I made up my mind to foot it; for they tell me, there is a nice young man to be taken into communion to-night …”

(X, 79).

The old hag's opening exclamation works as an ironic counter to Brown's repeated invocations of “Faith”; indeed, the pervasive tone of her remarks mocks Brown's sentimental expectations of how “pious” older women should conduct themselves, while retaining the childish diction associated with religious persons in their dotage. If the first devil acts as her foil on this occasion, then the speaker participates in the jesting as well, repeatedly referring to her as the “pious old lady” and “good dame” in blatantly ironic contexts and mimicking Brown's point of view when he introduces her as “mumbling some indistinct words, a prayer, doubtless. …” Later at the witch meeting, the speaker will become something of a gossip himself. “Some affirm,” he tells us as though he were repeating a rumor, “that the lady of the governor was there. At least, there were high dames well known to her. …” And, when the shape of Martha Carrier appears, he gives vent to a sudden outburst of devilish spite: “A rampant hag was she!”

Going to the devil, in “Young Goodman Brown,” means not just encountering certain unsettling insights into the terrible and the grotesque in human experience, but also confronting a mocking, satiric attitude toward such revelations. The devils who haunt Brown's woods know how to laugh; and there is a kernel of devilish wisdom in the first figure's words to Brown during “a fit of irrepressible mirth”: “‘Ha!ha!ha!’ shouted he, again and again; then composing himself, ‘Well, go on, Goodman Brown, go on; but pr’y thee, don’t kill me with laughing!’” Could Brown learn to laugh, that is, could he learn to take an ironic view toward his experience in the Salem woods, then he might well begin to exorcise his tormenting devils. He will never be able to dismiss their words, but he might learn to live with them. Perhaps the best commentary on this aspect of the tale is to be found in a passage written two decades later in The Scarlet Letter. Commenting on Dimmesdale's vigils before the looking glass, in which “diabolic shapes” grin and mock at the bewildered minister and “spectral thoughts” assume life-like form, the speaker of the Romance points out that, although such fantasies are “the truest and most substantial things” to Dimmesdale, and although their effect is to steal “the pith and substance out of whatever realities” surround him, nevertheless: “Had he once found power to smile, and wear a face of gayety, there would have been no such man!” (I, 145-146). Certainly in both “Young Goodman Brown” and The Scarlet Letter, the speaker is on hand to show the reader that such laughter is possible; indeed, that an amused, ironic attitude toward the darker aspects of human experience is an accommodation of art to the recognition of the perverse and the demonic.

The third devil figure, who appears to Brown at the witches' meeting, is more grave and formal than his predecessors, though he shares their disposition for mocking wit. “With reverence be it spoken,” the speaker tells us, “the figure bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New-England churches.” And this devil addresses Brown “in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad, with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race.” Nonetheless, the incongruity between dark matter and light, ironic manner is apparent in his sermonic form of speech.8

“There … are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet, here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow's weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones!—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant's funeral …”

(X, 87).

The speaker, too, affects a reflective, mock-reverential pose. His appeal to “the sacred truths of our religion” at the conclusion of the tale, as well as such asides to the reader as: “With reverence be it spoken …” (cited above), express a mock-pious attitude; but the speaker can also affect a graver, moralistic tone. “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous,” he tells us as, maddened with despair, Brown rushes through the forest, “than when he rages in the breast of man.” Like the devils in the tale, the speaker is something of a chameleon, assuming now an amused, satiric tone of voice, now a graver, moralistic seriousness.


The speaker in “Young Goodman Brown” bears, then, a striking resemblance to the devil figures in the tale. He shares with them an ironic, parodic mode that ranges from boisterous laughter, to subtle, amused satire, to mock-reverential reflectiveness. In manner, as well as matter, the devils subvert Brown's naive notions; and the speaker is on hand to support their designs. Indeed, the speaker's mocking attitude is directed not just toward Brown, but toward the conventions of Romance as well. “And Faith, as the wife was aptly named …,” he comments in the opening lines of the tale, countering his allegoric appeal with an amused detachment toward the very process of allegory. “But the only thing about him, that could be fixed upon as remarkable,” he tells his reader when introducing the first devil figure, “was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself, like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Throughout the tale the speaker will present his reader traditional emblems like the serpentine staff, but will do so in a teasing manner. Affecting a naive pose, so that he appears an inquisitive, unsophisticated spectator of events, he mimics Brown's perspective. Yet his commonsense observations have a sarcastic resonance to them, reinforced by such ironic qualifiers as “of course,” “doubtless,” “in truth,” and “perhaps.” Like the devil figures in the tale, the speaker feigns a Brown-like innocence as he satirically mocks such credulity.

Brown's complacent faith in saintly ancestors and angelic wives, as well as a moral order that reflects a clear-cut segregation between good and evil, makes him an inviting target for the devils' satire. Behind this attack on Brown lies Hawthorne's own burlesque on certain conventions of authorship in the 1830's: the attitude, for example, that historical romance should suppress those aspects of the past which, in Rufus Choate's words, “chills, shames, disgusts us,” while accommodating “the show of things to the desires and needs of the immortal, moral nature,”9 and, for another example, the cult of “Heaven, Home, and Mother”10 preached by the scribbling women Hawthorne damned in 1855. For Brown acts as a determined sentimentalist throughout his adventure, fleeing from the unpleasant aspects of his past and his home into pat, reassuring morals whenever he can. The opening scene of the tale dramatizes this pattern well.

“Dearest heart,” whispered [Faith], softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to [Brown's] ear, “pr’y thee, put off your journey until sunrise, and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!”

“My love and my Faith,” replied young Goodman Brown, “of all nights in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee. … What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married!”

“Then, God bless you!” said Faith, with the pink ribbons, “and may you find all well when you come back.”

“Amen!” cried Goodman Brown. “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee”

(X, 74-75).

Though Faith's manner is coy and playful, her words reveal a deeper, more unsettling aspect of her character. A “lone woman,” “troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes,” she seems to want Brown to remain at home to protect her from experiencing facets of herself with which she is uncomfortable. Her parting words to her husband show a troubled resignation and sound more like a challenge than a blessing. Brown's responses show his reluctance to scrutinize his wife's troubled words and puzzling tone. In leaving behind “a blessed angel on earth” for a flirtation with evil in the night woods, Brown seems to hope to evade a problematic moment in his marriage; but in the woods he will be forced to confront unpleasant aspects of his wife and himself as he encounters the dark words and unsettling visions of the devils. Behind these mocking antagonists stands the skeptical figure of the author's persona, mocking such pretensions about life and literature. This “devil in manuscript,” like his counterparts in the tale, combines a tragic perspective with a satiric wit, converting “gloom” into demonic delight: the delight of writing “hell-fired” satires like “Young Goodman Brown.”


  1. From a letter dated 13 March 1821 from Hawthorne to his mother. See Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife; A Biography (Boston: Osgood, 1885), I, 108.

  2. From a letter dated January, 1855, from Hawthorne to William D. Ticknor. See Caroline Ticknor, Hawthorne and His Publisher (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1913), p. 141.

  3. Hawthorne and His Publisher, p. 142, from a letter from Hawthorne to Ticknor dated February, 1855.

  4. From a letter dated 4 February 1850 from Hawthorne to Horatio Bridge. See Bridge, Personal Recollections of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Harper, 1893), pp. 111-112.

  5. The following studies of “Young Goodman Brown” have most influenced this approach to the tale. Curtis Dahl's “The Devil is a Wise One,” Cithara, 6 (May 1967), 52-58, makes the well-taken point that the devil can often be a spokesman in Hawthorne's tales for the author's own subtle and paradoxical ideas. R. H. Fogle's two studies of the tale discuss its “light and idealizing” tone, as well as its elements of understatement and parody. See “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” New England Quarterly, 18 (December 1945), 448-465, and “Weird Mockery: An Element of Hawthorne's Style,” Style, 2 (Fall 1968), 191-202. Sheldon W. Liebman contributes to the discussion of Hawthorne's narrative mode in “The Reader in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1975 (Englewood, Co.: Microcard Editions, 1975), 156-169. The reader, he finds, is made to be the central character of the story, and Hawthorne's narrative technique works to put him in Brown's place. Indirect but nonetheless important sources for this discussion are Taylor Stoehr's “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Hawthorne's Theory of Mimesis,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 23 (March 1969), 393-412, and Darrel Abel's “Black Glove and Pink Ribbon: Hawthorne's Metonymic Symbols,” New England Quarterly, 42 (June 1969), 163-180. For writers like Hawthorne, writes Stoehr, “correspondences of dream and reality are to a great extent problems of verbal imagination, referential language, and literary mimesis.” The tale, from this perspective, is “peculiarly about itself, about the nature of belief in imagined realities, and about the status of such realities.”

  6. All quotations from Hawthorne's fiction are from The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, eds. William Charvat et al. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1962-). References to longer passages are identified by volume and page numbers.

  7. “Still, they might have been taken for father and son,” the speaker tells us, referring to the first devil figure and Brown. Later, a witch in the shape of the woman who taught Brown his catechism will compare this devil to “the very image of … Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is.”

  8. Fogle makes the following comment on this passage: “The difference between matter and manner is great, considering that the matter is lust, murder most foul, and possibly abortion. There is a ceremonious gallantry, along with an indulgent chiding, in ‘fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones.’ Girls will be girls, and a very entertaining circumstance it is, too.” See “Weird Mockery: An Element of Hawthorne's Style,” p. 199.

  9. Quoted from extracts of Rufus Choate's 1833 oration, “The Importance of Illustrating New-England History by a Series of Romances Like the Waverly Novels,” reprinted in Neal Frank Doubleday's Hawthorne's Early Tales, A Critical Study (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1972), p. 25. See especially Doubleday's discussion of literary theory and Hawthorne's practice in the “Age of Scott,” pp. 18-26.

  10. See Herbert Ross Brown's discussion of Richardson and the “triumph of the novel” in America in The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 (New York: Pageant Books, 1940), pp. 3-51.

Norman H. Hostetler (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “Narrative Structure and Theme in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 221-28.

[In the following essay, Hostetler discusses variant critical interpretations of Brown's experience as seen by both Brown and the narrator in “Young Goodman Brown.” Hostetler posits that Hawthorne's intersection of these two points of view illustrates “the fatal consequences of psychological misjudgment.”]

One of Nathaniel Hawthorne's major themes concerns conscious awareness of the reality which the mind imposes on external objects. Hawthorne's characters are repeatedly confronted by the need to establish the relationship between their imaginations and the external world.1 Their ability to make the epistemological distinctions between the products of their mental processes and their sense impressions of the external world frequently governs their ability to develop a sound moral relationship with other people.

“Young Goodman Brown” illustrates especially well the fatal consequences of psychological misjudgment concerning perception and reality.2 The problem of establishing point of view is central to developing this interpretation. Although Hawthorne's narrator exists outside the story line, the tension between the conflicting interpretations of experience provided by the narrator and Goodman Brown from their different points of view creates the basic ironic tone of the work. From this irony, Hawthorne develops his criticism of Brown's lack of awareness of the controlling power of the mind.

Recognition of this cause for Brown's behavior is essential in order to reconcile the divergent emphases that have been placed on the story. Interpretations have generally concerned themselves with the way in which Brown is deluded rather than with why Brown should make such serious errors in judgment or with why Hawthorne should so sharply and pervasively differentiate the narrator and Brown.3 Most critics have, of course, recognized that at least a part of Brown's experience is a “dream,” “vision,” or “hallucination,” but they are more concerned with individual choice, often moral or theological (in which case Brown is a deluded individual), or with an introduction to knowledge, usually psychological (in which case Brown's initiation is Everyman's).4 Brown does destroy himself morally, as the end of the story makes clear, yet as Frederick Crews notes, “the richness of Hawthorne's irony is such that, when Brown turns to a Gulliver-like misanthropy and spends the rest of his days shrinking from wife and neighbors, we cannot quite dismiss his attitude as unfounded.”5 By differentiating the points of view of the narrator and Brown, Hawthorne creates the multiple perspective necessary to validate all these critical emphases.

The narrator's description of events is characterized by the ambiguity that Richard Fogle has pointed out.6 The “uncertain light” that plays over everything obscures and confuses all appearances so that it is impossible to ascertain anything objective. Fogle, in fact, does not really go far enough in discerning ambiguities, for he restricts himself mostly to the narrator's literal expressions of doubt and alternative possibilities. He accepts as fact that Brown's conductor into the forest “is, of course, the Devil,” and that Brown sees there Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin, among others.7 But the narrator never once refers to them by their names. They are always described as “figures” or “forms.” Apparently, they have taken the shape of the persons whose names they use, although the evidence for this position comes only from the highly unreliable testimony of Goodman Brown and from the specters themselves—whose existence has been established only in relation to Brown's perceptions,8 and not the narrator's.

Brown, indeed, is the only person to whom ambiguity is an impossibility. He is absolutely certain about these identifications, despite the fact that they become progressively more ambiguous as the journey into the forest continues. The narrator first says only that Brown “beheld the figure of a man” (X, 75) which seems to resemble Brown's father or grandfather. But Brown, whose preceding remark (“What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”) indicates the tenor of his thoughts, assumes at once that the figure is the devil, although he scruples against calling him such.

In the next instance, the narrator's carefully restricted construction suggests even less validity to Brown's perception. There appears a “female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary dame” (X, 78). The extent to which this figure can be identified with Brown's real “moral and spiritual adviser” is uncertain at best, but Brown immediately concludes that what he perceived is unquestionably Goody Cloyse, although as soon as he “cast up his eyes in astonishment,” he no longer “beheld” her (X, 79).9

The minister and the deacon do not even exist as figures, but merely as disembodied voices—the conversation is supplied only by “the voice like the deacon's” and “the solemn old tones of the minister” (X, 81). With less evidence than before, Brown assumes that he has overheard the real “holy men.” Finally, out of the rush and babble of clouds and wind, Brown fancies that he discerns the “familiar tones” of his townspeople, and particularly, “one voice, of a young woman” (X, 82). Yet Brown exhibits no doubt about what he assumes he has perceived passing overhead, crying “Faith!” after his wife.

At this point appears the famous “pink ribbon,” which F. O. Matthiessen condemned as too jarringly literal to be accepted into the pattern of Brown's past hallucinations.10 Fogle rather lamely defends the ribbon as “part and parcel of his dream,” like everything else, and, moreover, of only momentary impact.11 There is a sounder argument for its use, because Matthiessen's assumption of the ribbon's literal existence is contradicted by the pattern of the expanding gap between the narrator's ambiguity of description and Brown's certainty of identification. From figures to voices to clouds to wind, the objects upon which Brown projected his certainties have become more and more vague and uncertain. This incident extends the pattern, for the narrator says only that “something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree” (my italics). Only Goodman Brown “beheld a pink ribbon” (X, 83).12 Considering the quality of his past perceptions, it would be exceedingly naive to trust his eyesight at this point. The narrator, moreover, has the last word on the subject, his insistence that Faith still wears the ribbon the next morning serving as a final ironic comment on Brown's perception of the “something.”13

The effect of this divergence of viewpoint is to establish the credibility of the narrator's perceptions and to undermine Brown's. The reader's confidence in the narrator's point of view has been reinforced by the objectivity of the unemotional tone, reflected in the eighteenth-century rhetorical patterns,14 by the candor that allows him always to present Brown in terms of the latter's current evaluation of himself, and above all by the honesty that results from his refusal to commit himself to a single-minded view of an external reality that he cannot truly know.

The reader, therefore, accepts the narrator as the norm for perception against which to judge Brown, who is beset by emotional vagaries and is blind to his own motivations. Brown's expressed ideas are constantly being undercut by his situation and actions, and yet he is absolutely certain—so certain that it never occurs to him to doubt it—that he knows what constitutes external reality. This fallacious certainty and the unconscious assumption upon which it is based provide for Brown's self-destruction.

Brown's assumption is that an absolute reality actually exists, that it lies in the external world, and that it is finally knowable by man through the perception of his senses. Brown is thus an extreme Lockean in his psychology—he insists on attributing all his mental impressions to external realities which have inscribed themselves on his tabula rasa. It never occurs to him that the source of some of his ideas may lie within himself, in his mind and imagination. Yet through the ironic tension between Brown's ideas and the perceptions of the narrator, Hawthorne has been making clear all along that the source of Brown's only significant ideas—that is, those which actually motivate and control his actions—is Brown himself.

Brown goes into the forest in search of the source of evil (or sin, or knowledge, or whatever moral or psychological term one wishes), fully confident of finding that source in some person or place—that is, in something external to himself. Since it will be external to himself, his relation to it will be subject to his own definition, limitation, and control, as suggested by his reiterated belief that he can stop his journey and turn back whenever he wishes. From the beginning, however, Hawthorne has undercut Brown's belief through the narrator's subtle insistence that Brown has carried all his ideas of evil, and therefore all the evil of which he is capable, into the forest with him. Everybody else who enters the forest has done so, too, but Brown's psychology will not permit him to accept the analogy presented to him by his experiences, whether real or imagined. Brown's exploration of the dark forest of the mind is qualitatively indistinguishable from the one that has been experienced implicitly by all other characters in the story (including the narrator), and explicitly by Faith, who has “such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes” (X, 74). But Brown refuses to recognize that evil and knowledge and their sources are intrinsic parts of all human nature. In this sense, therefore, it is finally irrelevant whether or not Brown's experiences “really” occurred. The crucial point is that Brown asserts certainty when he ought to be raising questions and doubts.

The narrator notes at the very beginning that all of Brown's good intentions are postulated only in the form of future actions—“With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (X, 75). Brown's “companion” appears to him only after he expresses his idea that “the devil himself” might be present (X, 75). Brown exclaims that he has already penetrated “too far” into the forest, but at the same time he was “unconsciously resuming his walk” (X, 76). The devil's arguments are so apt that they “seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor, than to be suggested by himself” (X, 80). While “applauding himself greatly” for determining to resist the devil, Brown hears “amidst these pleasant and praise-worthy meditations” the sounds of the minister and the deacon (X, 80-81).

If Brown had any sense of this source of his own perceptions, he might have drawn the correct analogy with the examples of innate depravity and taken his place with Faith in the brotherhood of man. His insistent assumption that all his ideas have a reality external to himself leads him instead to the wrong conclusion. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given” (X, 83). This idea obviously fills him with despair, so that he continues to the witches' meeting (or unconsciously permits himself to imagine the experience), but he still has no concept of his own nature, as events at the meeting illustrate. For him, evil is still the province of the devil—that is, the source of it is external to Brown. To that error he adds his Manichaean certainty of the distinctness and absoluteness of good and evil, merely reversing his previous assumption that everybody else is good to the assumption that everybody else is bad.

Once again, however, the narrator has the last word, concluding the first portion of the story with remarks that leave no room for doubt about where the source of evil really lies. Brown rushed into the

heart of the dark wilderness … with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. … he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors. … In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. … The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man.

(X, 83-84)

The narrator also leaves no doubt about Brown's relationship to the rest of mankind:

The verse died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together. Goodman Brown cried out; and his cry was lost to his own ear, by its unison with the cry of the desert.

(X, 84—my italics)

Brown does not hear his own cry for the cry around him, but the narrator hears both.

Although he does not accept the idea, Brown has already joined the congregation of evil, “with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart” (X, 86). He does not need the “baptism” to experience evil but to know its nature and the way it relates him to all people. The devil stresses this point by associating the knowledge of the catalogue of “secret deeds” with the ability “to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power, at its utmost!—can make manifest in deeds” (X, 87—my italics). Every bosom would include Brown's.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the devil is the real hero, trying his best to awaken Brown to the reality of human nature. Hawthorne's ironic ambiguities are much too complex for that. The devil is still one of Hawthorne's numerous false guides, subtly encouraging people to extend partial truths into erroneous absolutes. Although he admits the source of evil lies in the individual human, he does all in his power to foster its development and expression, as was illustrated earlier by the kinds of assistance he had offered Brown and all his friends and relations. Now he will succeed in securing Brown's damnation by encouraging him to refuse the baptism.

Essentially, he plays upon Brown's Manichaean conviction that everybody else is totally committed to evil. If you wish to be fully human, to join “the communion of your race,” he in effect tells Brown, you too must commit yourself to evil as “your only happiness” (X, 88). That the devil lies when he says that “evil is the nature of mankind” (X, 88—my italics) is established by the narrator, who makes a special point of referring to the religious activities the next morning of “the good old minister” and “that excellent old Christian, tian,” Goody Cloyse, as well as to the anxious and joyful Faith (X, 88-89). Part of the irony of the characterizations may well be turned against the characters themselves, in view of their previous night's associations, but, in any case, their holy activities are certainly no less real than the witches' sabbath, and a great deal more plausible, given the total lack of ambiguity in the narrator's descriptions.

But Brown has already thrown the good out with the bad. Rightly convinced that a conscious commitment to the idea of total depravity would be disastrous, he naively accepts the devil's explanation, which is actually only a necessary consequence of Brown's beliefs, that a commitment to the knowledge of the moral community of human beings means the same thing. By so believing, Brown throws out forever any possibility of sympathetic identification with other people, thus cutting himself off from the only way for him to test the validity of his perceptions. His rejection of brotherhood is, therefore, equally a disaster, for it is ironically based on an unconscious commitment to the concept of total depravity. It is this commitment that allows Brown (and Brown alone, as the narrator stresses) to hear only oaths, anathemas, hypocrisy, and anthems of sin, instead of prayers, blessings, preaching, and psalms (X, 89).

The narrator insists on this ironic quality by such devices as his remark that Brown is followed “to his grave” by Faith (X, 89-90), an ironic inversion of Brown's previous belief that he would hereafter cling to Faith's skirts “and follow her to Heaven” (X, 75). Such a commitment would have succeeded, not because Faith was “an angel on earth” as he originally thought, but because he would be accepting humanity.

Thus the narrator carefully works out the culminating irony of the story. In seeking to cut himself off from the evil in the external world, Brown has committed himself to the evil of his own mind, without hope of understanding or correction. Seeking salvation for himself, he has committed himself to the only course that will guarantee his destruction, for only those who believe in the reality of ideas independent of sense impressions can have hope for any future except the grave. And so “his dying hour was gloom” (X, 90).

One of the consequences of being aware of the nature of Brown's obsession is that the critic can no longer safely dismiss Brown at the end of his analysis as merely a deluded or even deranged person. Brown, after all, clearly retains the ability to behave acceptably in his social relationships. But he has lost the ability to transcend the external forms of these relationships and thus has lost the power to create moral relationships. Hawthorne's structure and theme imply that only through moral relationships can one create a positive human existence. Brown's failure in this regard is at once more subtle than is suggested by the references to “depraved imagination” and “distorted mind”15 and more universal than is suggested by the historical confinement of the problem to seventeenth-century Salem16 or even to Hawthorne's own mind.17 Brown's problems with perception and the products of his own imagination are potentially those of every human being. The reader dismisses the possibility of identification with Brown only at the peril of falling into Brown's obsession—another example of the complex ironies Hawthorne leaves waiting to trap the unwary reader who fails to recognize that it is precisely the contrast between the narrator's and Brown's perceptions that allows one to accept the universality of the experience while denying the validity of Brown's response to it.


  1. David W. Pancost suggests a relationship in Hawthorne's works between the uncertainty of appearances and intuitive sympathy in “Hawthorne's Epistemology and Ontology,” Emerson Society Quarterly, 19 (1973), 8-13. Nina Baym also notes Hawthorne's position that “the imagination controls what people do and hence is inseparable from actuality” (The Shape of Hawthorne's Career [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976], p. 33).

  2. In Mosses From an Old Manse, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, X (Columbus: Ohio St. Univ. Press, 1974), 74-90. References made in the text will be to the volume and page number of this edition.

  3. Some critics do not even recognize the existence of the narrator. For example, Robert E. Morsberger asserts that “nowhere does the author intrude; such moral generalizations as the story contains are spoken by the devil” (“The Woe That Is Madness: Goodman Brown and the Face of the Fire,” Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal, 3 [1973], 177). Perhaps Morsberger means only the “author,” but the narrator generalizes frequently. When he does so, he usually shifts from the past to the present tense (e.g., “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man” [X, 84—my italics]). This shift draws attention more sharply to the distinction between the narrator's point of view and Brown's.

  4. Compare such authors as F. O. Matthiessen, David Levin, and Paul J. Hurley, who stress the former, with those whose typical concern is for the latter, such as Richard H. Fogel, Daniel Hoffman, Roy R. Male, and Rita K. Gollin: Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1941), pp. 282-84; Levin, “Shadows of Doubt: Spectre Evidence in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” American Literature, 34 (1962), 340-52; Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” American Literature, 37 (1966), 409-19; Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, rev. ed. (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1964), pp. 15-32; Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction, corrected ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 136-54; Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (1957; rpt. New York: Norton, 1964), pp. 76-80; Gollin, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Truth of Dreams (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 124-128 and 134-139. A minority view sees Brown as primarily a vehicle for Hawthorne's attack on historical Puritanism. In the most detailed of these, Michael J. Colacurcio argues that Brown is representative as a culturally-conditioned victim of the Half-Way Covenant (“Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Essex Institute Historical Collections, 110 [1974], 259-99).

  5. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. 106.

  6. Hawthorne's Fiction, pp. 15-32. The chief value of Fogle's work, to which I am much indebted, lies in his stylistic and structural exposition of the counterbalanced ambiguity of meaning and clarity of technique.

  7. Hawthorne's Fiction, pp. 17-18.

  8. Levin, “Shadows of Doubt,” pp. 347-50. Not being concerned about the functions of the narrator, however, Levin accepts the reality of the devil, who in turn creates all the other spectral aspects of the story. The central question for Brown, as it was for Mather, is determining whether or not the devil had the people's consent to impersonate them (pp. 351-52). Cf. Hurley, who argues that the pervasive ambiguity necessitates the conclusion that none of the characters, including the devil, have any existence except as Brown's visions (“Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” pp. 414-15), and Crews, who argues that “Brown is facing embodiments of his own thoughts in the characters he meets in the forest” (The Sins of the Fathers, p. 100).

  9. To be sure, Brown's preceptor calls her “Goody Cloyse” too, but only after Brown does. Moreover, as the story later makes clear, the reader cannot trust the devil to tell the truth either.

  10. American Renaissance, p. 284.

  11. Hawthorne's Fiction, pp. 18-19.

  12. Cf. the use of the verb “beheld” in The Scarlet Letter, where the narrator specifically argues that the red A that Dimmesdale thought he “beheld” in the sky was primarily a product of his “guilty imagination” (V, 189).

  13. Cf. Levin, “Shadows of Doubt,” who cites similar evidence to argue that the ribbon is simply another of the devil's spectres (p. 350). Critics who desire a literal alternative can provide one easily enough. For example, if Hoffman is right about the night being Halloween (Form and Fable, p. 150), then the something might as well as not be a reddish leaf falling. But the ambiguity seems firmly established without one of the narrator's usual literally expressed alternatives. Crews also notes in passing that “Brown shares Othello's fatuous concern for ‘ocular proof’” (The Sins of the Fathers, p. 101), a concern that most definitely is not shared by the narrator.

  14. Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction, p. 31.

  15. Hurley, “Young Goodman Brown's ‘Heart of Darkness,’” pp. 411 and 419.

  16. Levin, “Shadows of Doubt,” pp. 351-52; Colacurcio, “Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence,” pp. 289-90.

  17. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers, p. 106.

Karen Hollinger (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil in Manuscript’:—A Rebuttal,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 381-84.

[In the following essay, Hollinger presents a rebuttal to James L. Williamson's 1981 essay (see above) on “Young Goodman Brown,” arguing that the narrator is not “of the devil's party,” but someone who exposes the hypocrisy of Puritan New England society.]

James L. Williamson's “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil In Manuscript’” identifies Hawthorne's tale as a “hell-fired” satire in which the speaker in the course of his telling the story “shows himself to be of the devil's party” and expresses a “demonic delight” in narrating a satanic tale, a delight that establishes him as the counterpart of the work's other devil figures, yet a close analysis of the narrative perspective in “Young Goodman Brown” shows its speaker to maintain a substantial distance from all of the characters in the story, and especially from those associated with the devil's party.1 Williamson's argument centers on his identifying the speaker's method of telling his tale with the voices of the three major diabolical figures that Goodman Brown meets on his journey, the “traveler with the twisted staff,” Goody Cloyse, and the ministerial figure at the witches' meeting, but the speaker's attitude toward these figures is, on the contrary, so distant that Williamson's identification of a similarity in their voices appears extremely doubtful.

The speaker takes special pains to identify the figure with the twisted staff with specific personages: he bears a facial resemblance both to Young Goodman Brown and to Brown's grandfather, and has had intimate dealings not only with Brown's Puritan ancestors, but also with his contemporaries, deacons of the New England churches, members of its Great and General Court, and even the governor,2 but never does the speaker in this long catalogue of identifications make any connection whatsoever between himself and this diabolical character; he maintains instead a careful distance, refusing even to assign this strange traveler a name, calling him only Brown's “fellow traveler,” “the other,” “he of the serpent,” “the elder person,” “the traveler with the twisted staff,” “the elder traveler,” and finally “the shape of Old Goodman Brown.” Clearly, the primary motive for this obfuscation cannot be to hide the satanic character of this figure, for it is all too apparent, but rather to accomplish the speaker's distancing from him. The only connections between the speaker and the “traveler with the twisted staff” are, as Williamson notes, their mockery of Young Goodman Brown's naïvety and their sarcastic reactions to his blind unrecognition of the evil within man, but Williamson fails to note the crucial difference between them, the very different aims served by their sarcasm and mockery: the “traveler with the twisted staff” hopes to convert Brown entirely to the cause of evil, while the speaker stands apart as an advocate of a balanced recognition of man's capacity for both good and evil. That both men adopt a sarcastic stance toward Brown does not seem evidence enough to connect their identities, and, in fact, the aims of their sarcasm seem to divorce them from each other. Williamson also connects the “traveler with the twisted staff” and the speaker in their “amused” attitude toward Brown, an attitude that leads “the traveler” to a “fit of irrepressible mirth” when Brown expresses his confidence in the righteousness of his ancestors (p. 78), yet this fit of mirth, or of “boisterous laughter” as Williamson calls it,3 does not seem at all characteristic of the speaker, who may be sarcastic, condescending, and mocking of Brown, but never seems to find his situation in the least mirthful.

The connection that Williamson makes between the speaker and the second diabolical figure in the tale, Goody Cloyse, is also unconvincing in that it is based solely on the notion that Cloyse and the speaker are united in their tendencies to gossip. When Goody Cloyse converses with the “traveler with the twisted staff,” she identifies him as “in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is” (p. 79), the meaning of gossip in this context being ambiguous and open to two interpretations: either a relayer of sensational and personal rumor in the modern sense of the word or an old friend or crony in the archaic sense. Goody Cloyse's use of the personal pronoun “my” would seem to make the archaic usage more likely, but Williamson proposes that the modern meaning is suggested and that the speaker demonstrates similar tendencies to gossip in his description of the witches' meeting.4 His saying that “some affirm that the lady of the governor was there” and his calling Martha Carrier “a rampant hag” represent, according to Williamson, two instances in which the speaker descends to the level of gossip and shows himself similar in character to Goody Cloyse, but these two phrases can, in fact, be interpreted otherwise to refute this imputation (pp. 87, 86).5 The indirect reference to the governor's wife can be seen as the speaker's attempt to cast doubt, as he does so often in the narrative, on the certainty that events actually happened as Brown perceived them and to exercise his sarcasm at the expense of Puritan hypocrisy by pretending to doubt that this hypocrisy could extend even to the most respected members of New England society, and the use of the term “rampant hag” in regard to Martha Carrier seems intended not as a piece of village gossip, but to add to the speaker's portrait of the witches' meeting as a union in satanism of both the apparently evil and the seemingly good, the “rampant hag” Martha Carrier and “that pious teacher of the catechism” Goody Cloyse coming together to help the proselytes in evil to the “canopy of fire.” But the significant distinguishing features of Goody Cloyse's voice, as Williamson does note, are her colloquial, folksy speech and her somewhat quarrelsome, yet mirthful attitude toward “his worship,” the “traveler with the twisted staff,”6 yet these qualities of voice, as Williamson does not point out, are in no way duplicated in the tone of the speaker who is never colloquial, quarrelsome, or mirthful.

The third satanic figure, the Puritan divine who leads the congregation of witches and sets out to initiate Young Goodman Brown and Faith into it, is quite rightly identified by Williamson as assuming a “sermonic form of speech,” and this tone, according to Williamson, is duplicated in the speaker's mock-reverential tone in such phrases as: “With reverence be it spoken …” and “the sacred truths of our religion” and to his moralistic insertions such as: “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” (pp. 86, 89, 84).7 The difference, however, is between reverence and mock-reverence: the Puritan divine as leader of the witches' meeting uses a tone of reverential sermonizing that is never meant by him as sarcastic mockery, while the speaker's reverential and moralistic phrases seem, on the other hand, to be used for this purpose.

There are indications in the story not only that the speaker's voice is not intended to be associated with that of the diabolical figures, but also that he wishes to remain very distant from them. His initial narrative perspective is that of Young Goodman Brown, who is the first figure introduced, the character through whom Faith's parting words and the meetings with the diabolical figures are perceived, and the comrade with whom the speaker undertakes the journey into the gloomy forest. If the speaker identified with the evil characters in the tale, it would seem at least once he would slip into their consciousness to record their perceptions of events, but this never occurs. The encounters with the “traveler with the twisted staff,” Goody Cloyse, the minister and Deacon Gookin, and the experiences of the witches' meeting are all perceived through Brown's consciousness and only his internal reactions to them are described, a particularly telling scene occurring when Brown leaves the “traveler with the twisted staff” to avoid an encounter with Goody Cloyse. The speaker follows Brown into the trees to observe the meeting from this distant perspective rather than remain with his diabolical figures; this abandonment of evil to follow naïve virtue seems further to call into question the possibility of the speaker's identification with this evil. A second scene revealing the speaker's attitude toward evil involves Brown's perception of a dark cloud completely blackening the sky overhead as he moves farther into the forest's gloom, causing him to doubt that there is even a heaven above. At this point, the speaker breaks off from Brown's perspective to insist that “yet there was the blue arch and the stars brightening in it … the blue sky was still visible, except directly overhead” (p. 82). The speaker now begins slowly to divorce himself more and more from Brown's perspective as Brown becomes so shocked and disillusioned by his initiation into evil that he is unable to see the good that is also within man, as the blue sky is behind the dark cloud just overhead. To the speaker, Brown's incapacity to view man as both good and evil makes the rest of his life a nightmare and “his dying hour” one of “doom” (p. 90). Far from being of the devil's party, the speaker in “Young Goodman Brown” is a member of the party of man believing in his enormous capacity for both good and evil, a capacity that the speaker believes the hypocrisy of Puritan New England made it impossible for Goodman Brown to accept, or even to understand.


  1. James L. Williamson, “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's Devil in Manuscript,” Studies in Short Fiction, 18 (Spring 1981), 155-162.

  2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” in The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, eds. William Charvat et al. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1962), pp. 76-77, 79. All further citations from the tale are to this edition and will be identified parenthetically in the text.

  3. Williamson, p. 161.

  4. Williamson, p. 159.

  5. Williamson, p. 159.

  6. Williamson, pp. 158-159.

  7. Williamson, p. 160.

Michael Tritt (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and the Psychology of Projection,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21. No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 113-17.

[In the following essay, Tritt explores “Young Goodman Brown” in terms of the psychological phenomenon of projection, suggesting that Brown projects his own feelings of guilt and sin onto those he sees during his night in the forest.]

A recent bibliography of Hawthorne criticism suggests that the four hundred or so articles written about “Young Goodman Brown,” “cover an intimidating array of responses that pursue every possible interpretive nuance, from esoteric theological dogma to technically precise but scientifically complex psychoanalytic themes.”1 Despite this wealth of illuminating comment, however, there is still much contention about the meaning of the tale. The psychology underlying Goodman Brown's reaction to his forest experience, for example, still remains puzzling. How exactly does Brown regard his devilish2 behavior in the forest?

The most common reading of the tale asserts Brown's loss of faith, in himself and in his fellows. Critics argue that, as a result of his nighttime experience, Brown comes to believe all men corrupt and inevitably evil. Yet there is another possibility. In my view, Brown's bewilderment, and subsequent withdrawal, results from his conviction (however misguided) that he yet remains unfallen. In an attempt to escape his guilt-consciousness and the concomitant moral anxiety, Brown projects his guilt onto those around him. While many readers of the tale have acknowledged the extent to which Brown's feeling of his own duplicity colours his nighttime vision and subsequent sense of those around him, none has adequately examined this phenomenon of colouring (projection) as it is defined by psychology.

Readers typically assert that the horrors of Brown's dream vision and his criticism of others derive from the projection of Brown's subconscious guilt. Nevertheless, these same readers still conceive of Brown as self-consciously guilt-ridden, and thus desperate, at the tale's end. Yet the process of projection classically functions to “defend” the individual from his anxiety. The result is that while guilt persists, it persists only at the subconscious level. Brown's desperation at the end of the story is not primarily, then, the result of a guilt-consciousness, but rather originates with a guilt he is unable to recognize and admit. Conceiving of himself as unscathed, Brown obsessively locates the source of his anxieties in those around him.

Through Brown's experience in the forest, he comes to know the duplicity of human nature. His more lurid revelations, however, involve the depths of his own corruption. For an unknown reason (yet one of “evil purpose” [75]) he decides to go into the forest to meet with the “dark figure” there (86). Yet Brown is unable to contain his journey within the limits of his arranged meeting; as one critic aptly puts it, “he becomes a man who leans too far over the edge of a pit.”3 Inevitably, Brown tumbles into “the heart of the dark wilderness … with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil” (83). In the process, he becomes “the chief horror of the scene” (83), “giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy” (84): he is transformed into a “demoniac” (84) who feels a “brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart” (86) with the “grave and dark-clad company” of “fiend-worshippers” (87).

Many readers agree with Reginald Cook's assertion that “as Brown goes from village to forest he passes from a conscious world to an unconscious one.”4 The forest in this context reflects a world of Brown's sinfulness. Johnson describes “the landscape through which [Brown] travels” as a “hellish externalization of his own heart.”5 Walsh writes of “The Black Man” as an “objectification of the dark side”6 of Brown's Nature. Crews similarly suggests that the characters Brown meets in the forest are “the embodiment of his own thoughts,” and further states that “the accusation that Brown's devil makes against all mankind the more pointedly against faith, clearly issues from Brown's own horror of adulthood. …”7 These critics and others,8 affirm that Young Goodman Brown enacts a deep-seated guilt-consciousness in his journey to the heart of the wilderness.

Brown returns from that nightmarish journey, but he returns “like a bewildered man” (88). In what way does he seem bewildered? He accepts his vision of evil in the community at large, accusing the members of that community with being the devil worshippers of his nighttime experience. Along with the evil of his neighbors, however, the forest experience depicted his own evil. Yet when he spies Goody Cloyse (“that excellent old Christian” [89]) catechising a little girl, Brown “snatched away the child, as from the grasp of the fiend himself” (89). How can we explain this action? If Brown truly conceives of himself as fallen, why would he snatch the child from one “fiend” to yield her to yet another, namely himself?9 Brown must believe himself untainted, or at least less tainted than various members of his community.

If we further examine the final paragraphs of the tale, we notice a continuing pattern of condemnation.

“He shrank from the Venerable Saint as if to avoid an anathema.”


“‘What God doth the wizard pray to?’ quoth Goodman Brown.”


“Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.”


On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly. … When the minister spoke from the pulpit … then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading, lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer. … He shrank from the bosom of Faith … and gazed sternly at his wife and turned away.


Brown consistently focuses his attention outwards. There is loathing, but it is manifestly not self-loathing. The congregation, from which he is clearly withdrawn, sings an anthem of sin, while it is the minister, speaking from the pulpit, who is the “gray blasphemer.” Unlike Hooper, in “The Minister's Black Veil,” Brown never glimpses his own image as something fearful and iniquitous.

Brown's focus outward suggests a psychological design, though as Hawthorne describes elsewhere, it is “only … such instinctive design as gives no account of itself to the intellect.”10 Brown's compulsive condemnation of others, along with his consistent denial of his own culpability, illustrates a classically defined case of projection.

A person is projecting when he ascribes to another person a trait or desire of his own that would be painful for his ego to admit. Since the act of projecting is an unconscious mechanism, it is not communicated to others nor is it even recognized as a projection by the person himself. Projection in the Freudian sense, therefore, represents a misperception or a false perception. The fault or the unsavory desire or trait is still in the person's unconscious; it is not in the person or object on whom the projection is made.11

The “misperception” or “false perception” is manifest in two respects. First, Brown locates his own evil in others. Second, and of greater significance to my argument, Brown believes himself to be without guilt, even though in fact, “the unsavory desire or trait is still in … [his] subconscious.” Although Brown's lifetime obsession with the guilt of others functions, then, as a “mechanism of defense … keeping off dangers” “… at all costs,”12inevitably, the original anxiety remains festering within.

The type of devilish behavior Brown exhibits in the forest would be sinister enough to shake most anyone's moral self-confidence, but for Brown, the Puritan, such devilishness presents an irreparable shock. Reeling from his self-revelation, he “inadvertently … create[s] for himself … the distorted and fantastic people”13 who become his neighbors. “Then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading, lest the roof should thunder down …” (89). Freud suggests that “not infrequently … the ego … has paid too high a price for the services which these [defense] mechanisms render.”14 Such is the unfortunate example of Goodman Brown, who inevitably pays with a terrible isolation, becoming a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful … man …” (89).

Writing of Brown, Frank Davidson describes “the transforming power and the paralyzing deceptiveness of an evil thought which … starts into action subtle psychological processes. …”15 The vice-like grip with which such processes grasp Brown is all the more paralyzing, indeed terrifying, because “one cannot flee oneself; flight is no help against internal dangers.”16 The origins of Brown's behavior lie buried beneath his consciousness. As a result, Brown is trapped, an unwary prisoner of forces acting from within, though ironically, in trying to “defend” himself, he feels victimized from without. The universality of such susceptibility to ungovernable forces; the pervasiveness of what Hawthorne elsewhere termed our “unconscious self-deception,”17 may explain the manifold responses to this most powerful of Hawthorne's tales.


  1. Lea Newman, A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979).

  2. “He was himself the chief horror of the scene.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Ohio: St. University Press, 1974), X, 83. All subsequent references to the tale will be from this edition and noted by parenthesized page number.

  3. Thomas F. Walsh Jr., “The Bedevilling of ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly], 19 (1958), 333.

  4. Reginald Cook, “The Forest of Goodman Brown's Night: A Reading of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” NEQ [New England Quarterly], 43 (1970), 474.

  5. Claudia D. Johnson, “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Puritan Justification,” SSF [Studies in Short Fiction] 11 (1974), 202.

  6. Walsh, p. 334.

  7. Frederick C. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers (New York: Oxford, 1966), pp. 100, 102.

  8. See, for example, Robert Emmet Whelan Jr., “Hawthorne Interprets ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” ESQ, 62 (1971), 2-4; Frank Davidson, “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's Intent,” ESQ, 31 (1963), 68-71; Dennis Brown, “Literature and Existential Psychoanalysis: ‘My Kinsman Major Molineaux’ and ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” CRAS, 4 (1973), 65-73. There is disagreement about the sources of Brown's guilt. A number of Freudian critics (Crews, Male, and Hoffman, for instance) suggest that the source of that guilt is sexual. Though these Freudian critics discuss the unconscious sources of guilt, none examine the process of projection as it might explain Brown's behavior.

  9. In the forest scene, the narrator suggests that “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man” (84) (i.e. Brown).

  10. Hawthorne, Vol. II, The House of the Seven Gables, p. 132.

  11. Harold H. Anderson and Gladys L. Anders, Eds., An Introduction to Projective Techniques and Other Devices For Understanding the Dynamics of Human Behavior (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1951), p. 3. (Italics mine).

  12. Sigmund Freud, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud (London: The Hogarth Press, 1974), Vol. 23, p. 237.

  13. Henry P. Laughlin, The Ego and Its Defenses (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1970), p. 233.

  14. Freud, p. 237.

  15. Frank Davidson, “Young Goodman Brown: Hawthorne's Intent,” ESQ, 31 (1963), 68.

  16. Freud, p. 237.

  17. Hawthorne, Vol. X, “The Birthmark,” p. 40.

Christopher D. Morris (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Deconstructing ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, March, 1988, pp. 23-33.

[In the following essay, Morris examines misnaming and misreading in “Young Goodman Brown” in a deconstructive critical approach to the tale.]

Two trends in recent criticism of “Young Goodman Brown” form the background to this essay. First, historicist critics, analyzing the story's Calvinist dilemmas, often remark upon the seeming inevitability of its action. Thus Michael Colacurcio concludes that “everything seems to follow from, or indeed to be contained in the initial situation of the story” (391). Jane Eberwein believes that the hero's “exploration of the hitherto concealed recesses of his soul would have come eventually as a test of his new birth” (26). For these and other critics, the story argues some necessity in Brown's confrontation with evil in the forest.1 It is as if young Goodman Brown's fate was always, already inherent in his marriage to Faith. Second, among commentators who adopt newer critical approaches to the story, there is a growing consensus that its theme concerns reading. Thus James L. Williamson writes that “Brown's experience in the woods will come to represent the experience of art, of reading the tale ‘Young Goodman Brown’” (156). Williamson builds his thesis on Sheldon W. Liebman's argument that the reader is “made to be the central character of the story” (158). These interpretations continue a long-standing tradition of interest in the self-reflexive character both of this story and of Hawthorne's oeuvre.2

In this essay I want to extend the direction of these two trends by arguing that the necessity articulated in the story is the inevitability of misreading. In order to arrive at this de Manian sense of the tale, I will examine, first, the problems of character-names, especially as these relate to the narrator. Next I discuss how misnaming is related to the story's subversion of the distinction between proper and common nouns. These two sections raise the possibility of some necessity for the reader, following the narrator, following Brown, to recognize misinterpretations only belatedly, only after having suffered them. In the third section I analyze how the foregoing primary deconstruction of the figures of the tale is repeated in a secondary deconstruction, of the reader's experience in interpretation.3


In a general way, deconstruction—like “Young Goodman Brown” itself—seeks to illuminate unexamined assumptions in interpretation. Hence it will serve as an introduction both to the tale and to this essay's method to discuss certain critical presuppositions with regard to characters' names. Richard Hostetler correctly points to the hidden assumptions in the work of R. H. Fogle and others who accept without qualification the names, used in Brown's forest-journey, for which the narrator provides no verification (222). For example, many commentators call young Goodman Brown's fellow-traveller “the Devil” (or “the devil”—as we shall see, even conventions of capitalization are not unimportant in the tale), but the narrator never does.4 Several passages in the text may give rise to such an identification, among them the following interchange:

The traveller put forth his staff and touched her withered neck with what seemed the serpent's tail.

“The devil!” screamed the pious old lady.

“Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend?” observed the traveller, confronting her and leaning on his writhing stick.

“Ah, forsooth, and is it your worship indeed?” cried the good dame. “Yea, truly it is, and in the very image of my old gossip Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is.”


But close inspection of this passage reveals that it affords no incontrovertible basis for identifying Brown's fellow-traveller as the Devil. On the contrary, the fellow-traveller responds to the old lady's startled expletive with a question, not a statement, after which she refers to him as “your worship.” (The interchange thus reveals a confusion of two functions of language, the semantic and the poetic, in Jakobson's terminology, an indeterminacy which as we shall later see can subvert other namings too.) The most that can be said of the passage is that a catechresis is expressed: the old lady believes that “it” is “your worship,” in the image of someone else. But even if we equated “your worship” with the Devil, we would still need to evaluate both the woman's belief and the fellow-traveller's acquiescence in it: by itself the catechresis cannot establish “true identity”; on the contrary, the trope blocks it.

Similarly, although on their journey Brown and his fellow-traveller use the name Goody Cloyse, the narrator never does so. The closest the narrator comes to concurrence with their sobriquets is in the account of Brown's astonished glance when he beheld “neither Goody Cloyse nor the serpentine staff” (80). Thus the narrator's “confirmation” of this character's name is expressed simultaneously with her disappearance, a paradox which suggests that critical usage of “Goody Cloyse” may unwittingly perpetuate an interpretation that the story itself does not ratify.

As many readers have noted, doubts may also be raised concerning Brown's attribution of identities to the two voices he hears in the forest.5 Even though he hears only a “voice like the deacon's” and “the solemn old tones of the minister” (81), Brown unquestioningly believes these represent the minister and Deacon Gookin. The fact that one voice uses a noun-of-direct-address in an apparent reply to the other does not resolve the doubt, if only because the story's use of similar-sounding, even identical names for various characters underlines the arbitrariness of signification in the tale: thus, Martha Cory and Martha Carrier are both witches; Goodman Brown is the name of both grandfather and grandson. Thus, young Goodman Brown's attribution of presence to the two voices he overhears must remain, even at this semantic level, only a hypothesis.

Yet the fact that Deacon Gookin, the minister, and Goody Cloyse are mentioned by the narrator later, at the forest-ceremony and in the village, raises the more complex issue of the unexamined assumptions in the use of all those other names that are cited by the narrator. For if the judgments of young Goodman Brown, Goody Cloyse, and the fellow-traveller are called into question for hastily attributing names to “figures” whom the narrator regards more neutrally, the narrator's judgments are correspondingly undermined.

James L. Williamson has shown that the diversity of the narrator's styles reflects those of the three putative devil-figures whom Brown encounters on his journey (the fellow-traveller, Goody Cloyse, and the ministerial leader of the forest ceremony): variously sarcastic, gossipy, and sermonic in tone, the speaker's styles implicate the fiction-maker in the morally equivocal, demonic world into which Brown is introduced (161). But other characteristics of the speaker also make his unreliability evident. First, the apparently baffling allusion to the Egyptian magi can be understood only in self-indicting ways: if the narrator “means” his own allusion, then he becomes a genuinely superstitious proponent of the view that Brown's fellow-traveller is more than six thousand years old. Note here that the narrator's claim goes beyond an arguably plausible, Calvinist assertion that the fellow-traveller might represent a contemporary avatar of some principle of evil permanent in history; instead, the narrator seems sufficiently convinced actually to insert this “diabolic” agent into the text of Exodus. But, if on the contrary, the allusion is merely frivolous or hyperbolic, then our faith in the narrator's judgment, allusiveness, and naming elsewhere in the story is shaken. (As we shall see, this essay's argument is that a necessary departure from faith in naming may be an important construal of Hawthorne's allegory.)

And there is a disconcerting dimension even to the content of the allusion: in Exodus, Yahweh tells Moses and Aaron that the rod which is thrown down to the ground and changes into a serpent will be the sign of their divine direction. However, the magis of the Pharoah are able to duplicate exactly the same sign, thereby at once calling into question the signifiying capacity of Yahweh's sign. For the writer of Exodus, it is only when the serpents of Moses and Aaron eat those of the magi that Divine guidance of the Israelites is “incontrovertibly” established.

To this deliberate subversion of narrative reliability should be added other contradictions. When young Goodman Brown is seized by a fit of demonic laughter, the speaker comments: “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” (84). Again, the alternative interpretations of the passage call the narrator's judgments into question. If, as some argue, the narrator “means” simply to impart a cliche of folk-wisdom, then his own perspecuity in judgment elsewhere may be doubted. But if the narrator “means” what he says, then we must believe that he has in fact seen the “fiend in his own shape.” These alternatives for interpretation are equally destablizing: the narrator is thus either a hyperbolic fool or a superstitious fanatic.

Finally, the narrator's attitude toward the historical era that forms the backdrop to his story cannot be decided. Writing in retrospect from approximately the 1750s, the narrator understands the outcome of the witch trials. He alludes, apparently without irony, to Mather's judgment of Martha Carrier. When combined with his concluding, apparently approving references to “the sacred truths of our religion” (89), the reference would seem to establish the narrator as an orthodox Calvinist who evidently approves of church policy and history with regard to heresy. And yet, just as clearly, the history of criticism of the story shows that the tale itself calls such orthodoxy into question. Again the alternatives form a contradiction: the narrator's sincerity presupposes obtuseness to the point of opacity; but to impute cynicism to him would vitiate the story.

In fact, the story recounts a double misinterpretation: first, young Goodman Brown and other characters attribute names to figures in a process to which the reader, following the narrator, demurs. Yet when the narrator subsequently makes similarly definite attributions, and then interpretations, we are led to wonder if he commits the same errors as young Goodman Brown. That which at first establishes the credibility of the narrator—his refusal hastily to attribute presence to mere “figures”—serves by the end of the tale to subvert the authority of narration in general.

This paradox is an instance of what J. Hillis Miller, following de Man, calls “varnishing,” that is, an authorial gesture which asserts some putative presence or signified while simultaneously disclosing the untenability of such a center.6 “Young Goodman Brown” dramatizes a seeming necessity for such varnishing: the mistakes of the characters and the narrator are not simply ridiculed from some normative satiric perspective; on the contrary, critics agree that they seem inherent in the opening situation, in the marriage of young Goodman Brown to Faith. To understand how such misinterpretation could come to seem necessary, it will help to examine critical presuppositions with regard to Faith.

Just as most commentators hastily attribute the signification “devil” to the fellow-traveller, so the tradition is nearly universal that Faith means “faith in God.” However, it must be conceded that this traditional interpretation is itself an inference, an attribution of an absent signified to a signifier. While everything in the social and historical contexts of Hawthorne's tale makes such interpretation understandable, it is nevertheless an interpretation. Now some sense of the necessity for interpretation may begin to emerge here: we protest, rightly, that Faith must be faith in something, that faith must have a referent. And certainly “Young Goodman Brown” sustains such protests to the extent that it depicts a world in which interpretation is, indeed, unavoidable.

As a means of respecting the complexity of this dilemma, let us assume for a moment that Faith means not “faith in God” but “faith in a signified,” faith in some unequivocal relation between signifier and signified. Such an assumption does no immediate violence to the tale, since faith in significance would appear to be a precondition of any subsequent theological faith. With this (admittedly erroneous) attribution in mind, we might attempt to paraphrase Hawthorne's allegory in this way:

We are married to faith in a signified in the sense that discourse is impossible without the presupposition of some presence, some referent for the “figures” we encounter in life. Yet at the same time, doubt of the signified is inherent in the very nature of such faith. Therefore, once we “begin on the path” of our necessary misinterpretations, we arrive at a place which calls into question all previous names and identifications. It is at such a point that we see that the “object” of faith may itself be merely a signifier.

(Like all paraphrase, this one is clearly misleading since, as Derrida argues, it strategically serves as a supplement which privileges the ontological status of its “original,” the story.) Nevertheless, with such a context in mind, we can return to the story and examine its details from a different vantage point.


If all putative signifieds may be only signifiers in their turn, then the distinction between proper and common nouns may be undermined. As J. Hillis Miller has observed: “No name is ‘proper.’ All names, proper or common, are sobriquets, nicknames, figurative substitutes for proper names that can never be given and that cannot exist” (“Address” 289). “Young Goodman Brown” questions the distinction between proper and common nouns most obviously with regard to its titular hero. In what sense is “Goodman” a proper noun? The narrator also refers to him as “the goodman.” Of course, the hero's name, like Goody Cloyse, is an instance of the Puritan custom of converting moral attributives into proper names. But Hawthorne's usage has the effect of interrogating the basis of the distinction implied by Puritan tradition. Are these names substantives, attributives, or both? In fact, the very word “goodman” is a blend of both. Thus the uncertainty with regard to proper nouns leads to the even more fundamental one, between substantive and attributive. Such binary oppositions found Western logocentrism: thing and attribute, necessary and accidental, content and form. If “Goodman” may not be a “true name,” and may in fact blur the categories of noun and adjective, then what of “young”? The capitalization of the word in the title and in the story's first sentence momentarily seconds the doubt: as part of a title, the word takes on part of a quality of a noun; it partly names the thing, the story “Young Goodman Brown” (which, however, after all, consists of signifiers). And these doubts are redoubled by the name “Brown,” a most quotidian and common attributive redeployed here as a substantive.

That mere capitalization “distinguishes” proper and common nouns reinforces the arbitrariness of the logical and grammatical distinction, and Hawthorne plays with this doubt throughout the story. Thus, we read of “the minister and Deacon Gookin” (81); we reflect on the convention that like the word “young,” titles are capitalized “when they are integral parts of names”; yet the signified of “the minister” now becomes problematic: does the phrase refer to a particular person after all? This undecidable is later, symmetrically, repeated when Brown thinks he hears “a voice like the deacon's” (81). Of course, Hawthorne's capitalization is “consistent and correct”; nevertheless, its effect is to call into question the logical and grammatical distinction sustained only apparently and precariously by the convention.

The uncertainty created by the capitalization of the word “Young” in both the title and the story's first sentence is also repeated. At the forest ceremony we read of “Good old Deacon Gookin” but on Brown's return of “Old Deacon Gookin.” Again, Hawthorne's practice is correct: the convention for capitalizing sentence-beginnings has created the doubt. Nevertheless, the persistence of the awkwardness and its obvious correlation to the name of the titular hero call into question exactly how we know what “attributes” are “essential.” But even to frame the issue this way is to challenge the expectations of binarism and referentiality which readers must bring to the story, if only first to make semantic sense of it.

The most telling undecidable created by conventions of capitalization is evident in the last sentence Brown speaks. Back in his village, overhearing Deacon Gookin, Brown wonders: “What God doth the wizard pray to?” (89). Here the undecidability extends to that most important signifier in the story, that arche or origin of signification. The capital “G” in the word “God” would ostensibly presuppose Christian monotheism. And yet Brown's very question challenges monotheism by implying the existence of multiple gods. This doubt cannot be resolved; capitalization alone is inadequate to secure referentiality. And, even beyond this doubt, we must concede that such uncertainty is in fact created in language and sustained in writing. For it is the narrator who “writes” Brown's question. The narrator must make a choice—capitalization or lower case—but this act of interpretation only perpetuates a misunderstanding which would be always, already inherent in such a question even if spoken and overheard. Thus the narrator cannot escape the undecidability generated by the very necessity to articulate.

That troping is inherent in naming, misinterpretation in the very act of articulating, is apparent in Faith's first words to her husband:

“Dearest heart,” whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear. …


There would be a kind of grim, Custom-House humor about this passage were it not for the fact that Faith's misdirected noun-of-direct-address is but one of so many which come to seem inevitable in the story: heart is no truer a name than “Goodman” is.

We’ve seen that the narrator's allusion to the magis' rods uncomfortably raised the prospect of a sign which might signify equally divine guidance or its absence. But other signs and their interpretations in the story are also equivocal to the point of undecidability. Two simple examples occur during the discussion of young Goodman Brown's ancestors. The hero protests:

“And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path, and kept—”

“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interpreting his pause.


Here the signifier is a pause, literally nothing. Hence, whatever the merit of the fellow-traveller's interpretation, it cannot be confirmed. The point is quickly reinforced by young Goodman Brown himself, as he reacts to the innuendos made against his ancestors:

“If it be as thou sayest,” replied Goodman Brown, “I marvel they never spoke of these matters; or, verily, I marvel not, seeing that the least rumor of the sort would have driven them from New England.”


The silence of Brown's ancestors gives rise to two mutually exclusive interpretations of their characters, that they led lives of probity and that they didn’t. Like the magis' rods, the signifiers here (silences) generate not simply ambiguity, but undecidability, since to interpret at all is blindly to fill in a vacancy. And yet, as certainly, such silences cannot remain uninterpreted.

But the most notorious undecidables are Faith's pink ribbons, which have generated extensive critical commentary.7 The ribbons are mentioned at several points in the tale; however, the most momentous occasion takes place after young Goodman Brown cries out in grief after Faith.

But something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.

“My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.”


This passage suggests the dilemma of interpretation throughout the story: an arbitrary signifier is confronted and an interpretation, necessarily, follows. But the interpretation cannot be sustained from the signifier. (We have no way of knowing that this is Faith's ribbon or, if it is, that it denotes her being “gone” in the sense of having gone over to evil, etc.) Therefore, it is impossible, once more, to “verify” young Goodman Brown's interpretation. On the other hand, we must note that the interpretation is literally true, since Faith “has gone” in the sense that she does not here accompany young Goodman Brown. As in the case of the magis' rods, we are left with self-cancelling interpretations. These interpretations are not simply ambiguous; they are undecidable, because each is “potentially correct”; therefore, the necessity to interpret, to choose one interpretation, presupposes misinterpretation.

The recognition that all signifiers are ultimately undecidable, referring not to some presence but, endlessly, to other signifiers, is made clear in the story's climax, in which young Goodman Brown exhorts Faith to resist the wicked one by looking up to heaven. The idea that evil can be resisted by a gesture, by a reference, to something outside a signifier has everywhere been called into question by the tale: Faith is not a signified, a fixed entity whose “possession” could guarantee safety, much less salvation. Like the staffs, like the ribbons, like the silences, faith stands in need of an external signification which always escapes from it. Thus the narrator's final verdict (“We cannot know if Faith obeyed”) merely ratifies the story's undecidability.


The primary deconstruction showed us that by following young Goodman Brown, the fellow-traveller, and the narrator, the reader repeats the necessary misinterpretations they commit. When we arrive, with Brown, at the forest clearing, we witness with him, belatedly, the secondary deconstruction, the source of the errors necessitated by our own interpretation of the story. This moment occurs in the speech to the assembled characters by “the dark figure” or “the sable form.” The antinomian or gnostic content of the philosophy espoused in this speech has received adequate comment. In many ways this speech invites Brown to accede to a Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values.” The shock of Brown's recognition, of his resistance and his later reaction to this “ultimate” implication of the loss of signification has also received long and careful scrutiny, in an effort to establish the tale's judgment on Brown's lifelong misanthropy. But before we satisfy our understandable need to interpret the end of Brown's life, we should pause to consider how this Nietzschean conclusion is conveyed to him. We learn through the assumed speech of “the dark figure” or “the sable form.” But after we conjure in our minds the picture of some (male? female?) leader (of a “black” mass?), we understand that the words also refer to the words themselves, to the dark figures or inky signifiers we have been reading on the page, throughout “Young Goodman Brown.”

Attendant on this recognition is the retrospective acknowledgment that, in our attempt to interpret the story, we, too, have been making figures, especially personifications. For example, the use of the term “narrator” or “speaker” is precisely such a prosopopoeia—the presupposition of some speaking, human entity narrating a tale, whose voice and judgments ought to be reconciled with the story's action. But of course this has been but a fiction—a fiction necessary, it is true, as a precondition to making semantic sense of the tale. Nevertheless, the act of reading has made a young Goodman Brown out of the reader. And like him we may react with misanthropy that we have been gulled, that the betrayal of our faith was inherent in our first act of “suspending disbelief,” of extending faith to the storyteller, narrator, or author. In this way the reader may trace the path of his own illusions in Brown's.8


  1. For example, B. Bernard Cohen argues that one probable source of the story was Christ's Fidelity by Deodat Lawson, whose rigid Calvinism Hawthorne subverted by presenting Brown's experiences as “even more spectral than the cases cited by Lawson” (361). Hawthorne's exaggerations culminate in the scene in which Brown is “irrevocably” pulled away from Faith. Frank Shuffleton sees in the tale Hawthorne's response to contemporary revival movements, especially the “old error [of self-righteousness] toward which Puritanism tended” (319). Michael Bell sees Brown as “a falling-off from the manhood of the first generation” of Puritans and considers such a decline “an inevitable result of the principles of the founders” (80, 81).

  2. For example, in arguing that the story recounts the Freudian etiology of paranoia, Edward Jayne asserts that the story itself represents a delusional system similar to Brown's (109). Leo B. Levy anticipates part of my thesis in his claim that “the meaning of the story is that its own simple definitions do not work” (386). And even the historicist critic James W. Clark, Jr., sees Brown as “a willing convert like a new reader of a new author … he is reading and believing the devil's new book” (22). For a dissenting view of Williamson's argument, see Karen Hollinger's note.

  3. This distinction between primary and secondary deconstructions was first formulated by Paul de Man: “The paradigm for all texts consists of a figure (or a system of figures) and its deconstruction. But since this model cannot be closed off by a final reading, it engenders, in its turn, a supplemental figural superposition which narrates the unreadability of the prior narration. As distinguished from primary deconstruction narratives centered on figures and ultimately always on metaphor, we call such narratives to the second (or third) degree allegories” (205). Accordingly, this essay claims no privilege for its own thesis. On the contrary, in keeping with de Man's concept of an allegory, it attempts in passing and in conclusion to uncover the probable sources of its own errors.

  4. In addition to Fogle, Hostetler might also have added the following critics who identify the fellow-traveller as the devil, the Devil, or Satan: Cook (475), Jayne (103), Bell (78), Levy (376), and Liebman (160).

  5. See Williamson (222) and Liebman (165).

  6. Miller first used this term in his essay included in the collection American Criticism in the Poststructuralist Age (34); however, the concept is elaborated more fully in The Ethics of Reading.

  7. Levy summarizes the many conflicting interpretations of Faith's pink ribbons (382-384) and concludes that they should be understood as forming the link between “two conceptions of Faith” (384)—generally, literal and figurative. But Levy, too, presumes when he states that the ribbon Brown seizes was from Faith's cap (377). In addition to the interpretations Levy discusses, Clark interprets them as evidence of Faith's fall (30); Cohen, as spectral evidence (357); and Liebman, as the last in a series of sensory illusions.

  8. A shorter version of this paper was read at the International Conference on the Expressions of Evil in Literature, Philosophy and the Visual Arts, sponsored by West Georgia College, November 6-8, 1987, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Works Cited

Bell, Michael. Hawthorne and the Historical Romance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Clark, James W., Jr. “Hawthorne's Use of Evidence in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Essex Institute Historical Collections 111 (1975): 12-34.

Cohen, B. Bernard. “Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity and Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Essex Historical Collections 104 (1968), 349-370.

Colacurcio, Michael. The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Cook, Reginald. “The Forest of Goodman Brown's Night: A Reading of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” New England Quarterly 43 (1970): 473-481.

de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Eberwin, Jane. “My Faith is Gone! ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Puritan Conversation.” Christianity and Literature 32 (1982): 23-32.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Mosses From an Old Manse. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974.

Hollinger, Karen. “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil in Manuscript’: A Rebuttal.” Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 381-384.

Hostetler, Norman H. “Narrative Structure and Theme in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Journal of Narrative Technique 12 (1982): 221-228.

Jayne, Edward. “Pray Tarry With Me, Young Goodman Brown.” Literature and Psychology 29 (1979): 100-113.

Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1975. Englewood, Colorado: Microcard Editions, 1975. 156-169.

Miller, J. Hillis. “The Ethics of Reading: Vast Gaps and Parting Hours.” Ed. Ira Konigsberg. American Criticism in the Poststructuralist Age. Ann Arbor: Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 1981.

———. The Ethics of Reading. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

———. “Presidential Address 1986. The Triumph of Theory, the Resistance to Reading, and the Question of the Material Base.” PMLA 102 (1987): 281-291.

Shuffleton, Frank. “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement.” American Transcendental Quarterly 44 (1979): 311-323.

Williamson, James L. “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's Devil in Manuscript.” Studies in Short Fiction 18 (1981): 155-162.

Joan Elizabeth Easterly (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 339-43.

[In the following essay, Easterly discusses Hawthorne's use of lachrymal, or tear, imagery in “Young Goodman Brown,” emphasizing Brown's inability to cry either out of sorrow for others or in repentance for his own sins.]

“Faith! Faith!” cried the husband. “Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!”

Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not. Hardly had he spoken, when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind, which died heavily away through the forest. He staggered against the rock and felt it chill and damp, while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.

(Hawthorne [“Young Goodman Brown”] 88)

Thus ends the crucial scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale of “Young Goodman Brown,” the story of a Puritan lad who leaves his bride of three months to secretly watch a witches' Sabbath in the deep forest outside Salem village. In so doing, he willfully betrays his commitment to his wife, the moral code of his society, and the teachings of his religion. The experience of this one night in the forest changes Goodman Brown for the rest of his life, for it poisons his relationship with his wife, isolates him from his neighbors, and destroys his ability to worship God. Whether dream or reality, one wild night is the turning point of Brown's existence; afterward he is “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” and, when he dies, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone” (90).

Literary critics have interpreted the significance of Goodman Brown's experience in many fashions—allegorical, moral, philosophical, and psychological. However, there is an intriguing absence of any reference to the last line of the Sabbath scene to explain Hawthorne's characterization of the young Puritan, despite the fact that Hawthorne signals the importance of the cold drops of dew in a periodic sentence. In essence, Hawthorne here carefully delineates the image of a young man who has faced and failed a critical test of moral and spiritual maturity.

Young Goodman Brown, leaning against the cold rock after the witch-meeting vanishes, is reproached by his creator because he shows no compassion for the weaknesses he sees in others, no remorse for his own sin, and no sorrow for his loss of faith. The one action that would demonstrate such deep and redemptive human feelings does not take place. Goodman Brown does not weep. Therefore, Hawthorne quietly and gently sprinkles “the coldest dew” on his cheek to represent the absence of tears.

This lack of tears, the outward sign of an inward reality, posits the absence of the innate love and humility that would have made possible Brown's moral and spiritual progression. A meticulous artist and a master of symbolism, Hawthorne uses the twig and dewdrops deliberately. Drops of water on a man's cheek can only suggest tears.

The hanging twig that sprinkles the drops of water on Goodman Brown's face calls to mind a picture of the beadle perched on a high stool in the back of a Puritan meeting house, holding two long switches. According to legend, one switch had a feather attached to the end and the other a stone or burr. If a lady fell asleep during the long service, the beadle would awaken her by tickling her face with the feather, but any gentleman inclined to drowse or small boys inclined to mischief knew that the stone hung over their heads like the bait on a long fishing rod and that their recall to propriety would not be so gentle. Likewise, Goodman Brown is awakened to reality from his dream or vision by a “hanging twig” that had been burning during the witch meeting but now scatters cold dew on his cheek. Like the beadle's switch, a twig from on high is the vehicle for bringing to Brown's face the reminder of what would be correct behavior and attitude for a man in this situation. He should be weeping, but he is not.

The clear, cold drops of dew are a direct contrast to the flaming blood-like liquid with which the Satanic figure is about to baptize Faith and Goodman Brown when the young man's cry, “Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!” (88), interrupts the ceremony. The words—which trigger the disappearance of the witch-meeting—and the immediate sprinkling of dew on Goodman Brown's cheek suggest that the cold water is also a baptism, a sign of salvation, grace, and renewal. This interpretation would then imply that since Brown alone has resisted Satan, he would justly find his life intolerable in Salem, where all of those whom he has revered have betrayed his confidence in their faith. If the drops of water are a sign of blessing, then Goodman Brown's vision would seem to have been a true one, and he is consigned to live in the horror of being the one good man in a village of witches whose true maleficence is cloaked in piety. However, the placement and form of the water drops signify that they are not a reminder of Christian grace. In the story the devil's mark of baptism was to be laid on the communicants' foreheads as a mockery of the Christian sacrament. In contrast, the drops of dew that fall on Brown's cheek do not signify Christian baptism because this rite, by the oldest tradition, involves the forehead and flowing water rather than sprinkled water.

Instead, Hawthorne deliberately and ingenuously uses the image of dewdrops, suggestive of an uncomfortable, chilling dampness from the earth (rather than, for example, raindrops, which are associated with cleansing, warmth, and heaven), to reprove Goodman Brown. The Puritan has just seen the sinfulness of his neighbors and friends clearly exposed, and has become acutely aware of the evil in his own heart as the unholy celebration arouses in him a feeling of “loathful brotherhood” with the fiend worshipers. However, not only does Brown fail to display the pity indicative of a sense of moral maturity in regard to the weakness and depravity of others, he likewise shows no regret for his own wickedness, a response that would start him on the path to spiritual maturity. The spiritual implications of Brown's failure are emphasized by Hawthorne's presenting the young man's dilemma in the context of a witches' meeting, and Brown's assimilation of the Satanic figure's assertion that mankind is predominately wicked indicates his lack of faith in the power of God to overcome evil. On a moral level, Brown's acceptance of others as they are—imperfect and subject to temptation—would have made a mature adulthood and productive and healthy relationships with others possible. But his lack of remorse and compassion, as symbolized by the absence of tears, condemns him to an anguished life that is spiritually and emotionally desiccated. The drops that Hawthorne places on Brown's cheek are of “the coldest dew,” devastating in their connotation, for they represent the coldness of a soul that is dying, in contrast to the regenerative warmth of true tears and love.

Young Goodman Brown's inability to cry after the shock of the witches' meeting would be a strong argument for those who typecast the tale as an “initiation story” in which the protagonist fails to achieve adulthood. As psychologists Carol Gilligan and John Murphy state in “Development from Adolescence to Adulthood”:

While formal logic and principles of justice can release adolescent judgment from the binding constraints of a conventional mode of moral reasoning, the choices that arise in adulthood impose a new context for moral decision … an expanded ethic that encompasses compassion, tolerance, and respect.


Using these criteria, Goodman Brown demonstrates none of the characteristics of the adult “expanded ethic.” He shows no compassion for the sinfulness he sees in others (and which he shares), no tolerance for others' imperfections, and no respect for their attempts at faithful lives. Compassion is the most important of these characteristics because it could engender the other two emotions, and it is Brown's lack of compassion that Hawthorne wishes to emphasize in the story. Whether one classifies the young man's experience at the witches' Sabbath as a failed initiation into adulthood or as simply the critical moment in his moral and spiritual growth, Hawthorne's portrayal of a young Puritan of immature faith and simplistic morality is rendered more complete by the realization that Brown is a man who does not weep.

Human tears are an emotional response, and Hawthorne's allusion to the lack of tears underscores Brown's emotional barrenness. Critical analyses have hitherto focused primarily on Brown's faulty or immature moral reasoning, arguing that the Puritan fails the test of the Sabbath because he fails to reason on a mature moral level, either because of the legalism of Puritan doctrine or because of his refusal to admit his own sinfulness (Frank 209, Folsom 32, Fogle 23, Stubbs 73). Yet Hawthorne clearly indicates that Brown also destroys his chance to progress morally and spiritually because of his inability to respond intuitively to the shock of the experience with mature, positive emotions that would have enabled him to deal with the vision of evil in his neighbors as well as with the knowledge of his own wickedness. Goodman Brown does not weep tears of deep sorrow for others because he cannot love or forgive them. He does not weep for his own sins because he lacks a deeply felt faith, which tears of contrition—arising from a broken spirit sensitive to the baseness of sin and to God's loving mercy and grace—would signify.

Hawthorne emphasizes Brown's lack of positive emotions and implies his regression into emotional sterility by the cold, damp forest, which is in dramatic contrast to the description of the witches' meeting, where the trembling Puritan's horror is evoked by the blasphemy of the unholy worship and the loathsome kinship he feels with the congregation. The emotional prose intensifies with the dreadful, confused sounds of the fiends' hymn and the images of blazing fire, blood, and smoke as Brown becomes aware of the power of evil and the sinful nature of everyone whom he respects. When the vision disappears at Brown's anguished cry to Faith, the suddenly changed scenery of the next paragraph deliberately corresponds to young Brown's emotional state. Words like “solitude,” “rock,” “chill,” “damp,” and “coldest” suggest the absence or denial of positive feelings, which Brown demonstrates immediately afterward. The townspeople he encounters on his return from the witches' meeting are involved in good works—preparing a sermon, praying, catechizing a child—yet he rejects them, and when his young wife greets him with joy and affection, he spurns her. This heartlessness is the pattern for the rest of Brown's life, and Hawthorne, who was aware of the complexity and mystery of human nature, completes his portrait of a young man whose life is blighted in a single night by revealing in the crucial paragraph through chilly rock and coldest dew that young Goodman Brown's moral and spiritual disaster is also due to an inappropriate emotional response at the critical moment.

In conclusion, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the master of symbolism and suggestion, softly sprinkles cold tears on the cheek of young Goodman Brown. This lachrymal image, so delicately wrought, is the key to interpreting the young Puritan's failure to achieve moral and spiritual maturity. Brown cannot reconcile the conflict caused by his legalistic evaluation of others, nor can he transcend this moral dilemma by showing compassion and remorse. In final irony, Hawthorne tells us that the man who sheds no tears lives the rest of his life a “sad” man, whose “dying hour was gloom” (90).

Works Cited

Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1964.

Folsom, James K. Man's Accidents and God's Purpose: Multiplicity in Hawthorne's Fiction. New Haven: College & UP, 1963.

Frank, Neal. Hawthorne's Early Tales: A Critical Study. Durham: Duke UP, 1972.

Gilligan, Carol, and John Michael Murphy. “Development From Adolescence to Adulthood: The Philosopher and the Dilemma of the Fact.” Readings in Developmental Psychology, 2nd ed. Ed. Judith Krieger Gardner. Boston: Little, 1982. 400-12.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Mosses from an Old Manse. Ohio State UP, 1974. 74-90.

Stubbs, John Caldwell. The Pursuit of Form: A Study of Hawthorne and the Romance. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1970.

Benjamin Franklin V (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Goodman Brown and the Puritan Catechism,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1994, pp. 66-88.

[In the following essay, Franklin examines the influence of Cotton Mather's catechism entitled Milk for Babes, which focuses on humankind's innate moral depravity, on Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown.”]

If the importance of an artistic creation may be gauged by the amount of critical attention it receives, then Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” is surely one of the most significant stories ever written. From Melville's comments in 1850 to the present, this dark tale has engaged many of Hawthorne's best readers and is likely to continue attracting them. I would suggest, however, that while such scholars as Hyatt H. Waggoner, Richard Harter Fogle, Frederick Crews, and other, more recent critics have helped us understand Hawthorne in general and “Young Goodman Brown” in particular, they have overlooked a statement by Brown which, when analyzed, helps explain his inability to function satisfactorily in Puritan society.1

Soon after permitting his guide, the devil figure, to persuade him to go deeper into the woods than originally agreed, and after first seeing Goody Cloyse, Brown responds to her unexpected presence by saying, “A marvel, truly, that Goody Cloyse should be so far in the wilderness, at night-fall!”2 But then, after observing and hearing most of what transpires between his guide and her and after she seems magically to leave for a meeting deep in the woods, he exclaims, “That old woman taught me my catechism!” In asserting that “there [is] a world of meaning in this simple comment” (80), the narrator insists that Brown's seemingly innocuous statement reveals something significant about the young man.

In an exhaustive historical examination of Hawthorne's art that encompasses this tale, Michael J. Colacurcio takes Brown's statement at face value, commenting that Brown “has been duly catechized, in his youth, by the dutiful Goody Cloyse.” Neal Frank Doubleday, in a study of Hawthorne's early tales, mentions Brown's sentence but does not interpret it. Although Sheldon W. Liebman argues that the reader of the tale must “distinguish between appearance and reality by way of determining what happens in the story and why,” he does not subject the sentence or its implications to such a test. Most surprisingly, critics like Melinda M. Ponder who examine the narrator of this story also ignore the sentence, despite the extraordinary claim, implicit in the narrator's remark, that any reader wishing to understand Brown must take it into account.3

As best as I can determine, only two critics analyze the sentence: Thomas E. Connolly in 1956 and Robert C. Grayson in 1990. Arguing that during his night in the woods Brown discovers the “full and terrible significance” of his faith and that the story “is Hawthorne's criticism of the teachings of Puritanic-Calvinism,” Connolly posits that the “‘world of meaning’ in Brown's statement is that [Goody Cloyse's] catechism teaches the way to the devil and not the way to heaven.”4 Regrettably, Connolly seems merely to assume the nature of a Puritan catechism without having consulted one.

Grayson focuses much more sharply than Connolly on the importance of a catechism in “Young Goodman Brown.” He argues that Hawthorne alludes to a specific catechism and that the four references to it in the tale collectively suggest the meaning of Brown's statement. Grayson identifies the catechism as John Cotton's and quotes from two of the answers (the sixth and the eighth) that catechumens, including Brown, would have given to questions asked by a catechist. Apparently on the basis of these answers, he concludes that “by its emphasis on total depravity, [the catechism] soured the milk of human kindness” in Puritans generally and in Brown specifically, so that it “actually undermined trust in mankind and thus did the work of the devil.” As a result of studying with Goody Cloyse, Grayson asserts, Brown's “heart has been withered, at least in part, by the catechism.”5 However, only four sets of questions and answers (the fifth through the eighth) in the catechism of sixty-four such sets address the issue of innate depravity. In the remaining sixty sets, the author offers rules for living and addresses in considerable detail requirements for attaining salvation, the possibility of which children would have acknowledged in their first answer during catechism instruction. Failure to consider the entire text thus causes Grayson to assign greater importance to innate depravity than the catechism calls for, thus distorting the meaning of the catechism and misinterpreting its probable effect on Brown.

In this essay, I confirm Grayson's identification of the catechism to which Hawthorne alludes in his tale. I then examine the entire catechism and apply it to Brown, demonstrating that he never masters its meaning. I also show that the narrator speaks truthfully in his pregnant but elliptical comment about Brown's words.

By the year 1700, the Massachusetts Puritans had used a number of catechisms, including the Westminster Assembly's shorter version. As Grayson shows, Hawthorne consulted books that identify the specific catechism used in Salem Village in the late seventeenth century. Moreover, Marion L. Kesselring's catalogue of books that Hawthorne borrowed from the Salem Athenaeum reveals that before publishing “Young Goodman Brown” in the New-England Magazine in April 1835, he once withdrew (and his Aunt Mary Manning earlier twice withdrew, apparently for him) the sixth volume of Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. This volume contains “A Description and History of Salem,” in which William Bentley specifies that the Salem Village Puritans of Brown's time used John Cotton's catechism, Milk for Babes.6 Then, on 21 September 1833 and 30 December 1834, Hawthorne withdrew from the Athenaeum Joseph B. Felt's Annals of Salem, which records that on 10 September 1660 Milk for Babes was selected as the catechism for Salem children.7 In referring to a catechism in “Young Goodman Brown,” therefore, Hawthorne clearly has Cotton's in mind.8

Did Hawthorne then read the catechism in order to learn what it says? No evidence exists to indicate that he did. However, Hawthorne's close familiarity with the details of early American history is well known. In some of his tales he even alludes to or cites texts that illuminate the historical material he is presenting, as in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (Thomas Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts), “The Gentle Boy” (William Sewel's History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers), and “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (Joseph Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the People of England). Further, it seems unlikely that Hawthorne would have his narrator comment so boldly about Brown's allusion to a text if he, Hawthorne, were unaware of what the text says, especially when he knew its author's name and its title. In all probability, he sought out and read Cotton's text before completing “Young Goodman Brown.”9

In his research, Hawthorne would have discovered that Milk for Babes addresses innate depravity only after a positive beginning, which raises the possibility of salvation and details the nature of God and humanity's relationship to him:

Q. What hath GOD done for you?

A. God hath made me, He keepeth me, and he can save me.

Q. Who is God?

A. God is a Spirit of himself, and for himself.

Q. How many Gods be there?

A. There is but one God in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Q. How did God make you?

A. In my first Parents holy and righteous.

Q. Are you then born holy and righteous?

A. No, my first Father sinned, and I in him.

Q. Are you then born a Sinner[?]

A. I was conceived in sin, and born in iniquity.

Q. What is your Birth-sin?

Answ. [sic] Adams sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling in me.

Q. What is your corrupt nature?

Ans. [sic] My corrupt nature is empty of Grace, bent unto sin, and onely unto sin, and that continually.

Q. What is sin?

A. Sin is the transgession of the Law [the Ten Commandments].10

At the beginning of each catechism lesson, then, catechumens like Brown would have acknowledged two of the primary tenets of Puritan faith: first, the possibility of salvation; then, humanity's certain sinful nature.

Although the treatment of innate depravity in the catechism is relatively brief, this was only one source of information about human corruption and its implications available to Puritan youth. As part of the Puritan upbringing that implicitly precedes Hawthorne's tale, Brown doubtless would have sat through many sermons that emphasized innate depravity, which his family of churchgoers presumably reinforced, if only by reading and discussing the book of Genesis. Even if he been inattentive during the sermons or if for some reason his family had been derelict in fulfilling their religious obligation to him, the Puritans of Salem Village would have taught him this belief, either directly or indirectly. Theirs was a religious society, after all; people talked about their faith. Young Brown might have encountered reading material conveying the same message about depravity, such as The New-England Primer, the reader that offers the verse “In Adam's Fall / We Sinned all” to help abecedarians master the letter A. And the same verse, or one expressing a similar sentiment, might have appeared on the hornbook Brown would have used to learn the alphabet, or elsewhere.11 Because he has been reared and lives in Salem Village in the seventeenth century, Brown cannot have avoided regular exposure to the Puritan belief in innate depravity.

But before leaving the home he shares with his wife, Faith, does he believe—really believe—the gloomy philosophy presented in four sets of questions and answers at the beginning of Cotton's text? Clearly not. He thinks mortals good. How else explain the vow he makes, immediately after leaving home and while still observing his wife, that following his one night away from Faith, “a blessed angel on earth,” he will “cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven” (75)?12 If he believed in the certainty of depravity and only the possibility of salvation, as the catechism teaches, he would know that even so righteous a person as Faith is corrupt and not necessarily of the elect, appearances notwithstanding. And how else explain his disappointment in Goody Cloyse, the minister, Deacon Gookin, and Faith when he apparently encounters them in the woods? Disappointed—and shocked—he surely is. After seeing his catechist, he says, “What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven!” (80); after hearing the minister and Deacon Gookin, “With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (82); and after hearing Faith's voice and seeing her pink ribbon, “My Faith is gone! … There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name” (83). He now thinks that he was mistaken about these people he has “reverenced from youth” (87) and, by extension, about all people, especially those of his society. Only at this point does Brown finally comprehend the innate corruption of humanity. (The guilt he apparently feels at leaving Faith for the appointment with his guide seems to stem more from his violating her trust than from any belief in depravity.) As if to prove that he is one with the multitude he now views darkly—and possibly to demonstrate that he at last understands the full, somber reality of one part, if only one small part, of the catechism—Brown goes forward to participate in a fiendish version of the baptismal rite, which he finds the “Shape of Evil” conducting in the woods (88).13

Without addressing the catechism directly, Colacurcio, in calling Brown “theologically ill-prepared,”14 offers one reason why Brown, before leaving home, has such an un-Puritan view of human nature: perhaps he does not comprehend the tenets of his faith, one important source of which is the catechism. Goody Cloyse might share this view. In terming her former student a “silly fellow” (79), she may intend to suggest that although he memorized the catechism answers, his latitudinarian attitude toward her, Faith, and others before he enters the woods signals his inability truly to understand and psychologically assimilate the full significance of Milk for Babes. Even if this is not what she means, the historical record indicates that many young people before, during, and after Brown's time have had difficulty mastering the meaning of a catechism.

This problem attracted the attention of several important seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century divines, both American and English. No less a figure than Richard Mather implies that too many people fail to master the meaning of a catechism. In his 1657 farewell sermon, he observes, “[C]omonly they that fall to erro[ur,] [ar]e defective in the knowledg of Catechistical points.”15 At almost precisely the same time that Brown would have been studying the catechism with Goody Cloyse, however, the English cleric Richard Baxter was suggesting that it is more important for children to memorize the words of a catechism than to understand what the words mean, at least initially. He writes: “Cause your younger Children to learn the words, though they be not yet capable of understanding the matter. … A child of five or six years old can learn the words of a Catechism or Scripture, before they are capable of understanding them.”16 If this attitude prevailed in Salem Village during the time when Goody Cloyse would have been teaching Milk for Babes, it might help explain Brown's early inability to embrace the full significance of Cotton's text: there would have been no compelling reason for him to master it; he would have been required only to memorize the words. Yet he would have been expected to understand the catechism as he matured and to begin conducting his life according to its principles. He does neither.

Others also expressed opinions about the common deficiency in understanding a catechism. Cotton Mather, for example, addressed this problem in 1699, only seven years after the probable date of the events in “Young Goodman Brown.” Clearly, he is less inclined than Baxter to make allowances for children's lack of comprehension:

Be sure, that they [catechumens] Learn their Catechism very perfectly; But then content not your selves with hearing them say by Rote, the Answers in their Catechism; Question them very distinctly over again about every clause in the Answers; and bring all to ly so plain before them, that by their saying only, Yes, or, No, you may perceive that the sense of the Truth is Entred into their Souls.17

Three years later, Mather's concern had not abated. He includes the text of Cotton's catechism in one of his own publications and adds to it questions that can be answered affirmatively or negatively, precisely as he prescribed in 1699. He admonishes: “To Remember, and not Understand, is as Tedious as Useless a Thing. It is a thing of the first Importance, that our Children do Understand, what they Remember, of their Catechism, and not recite it, like meer Parrots, by rote.”18 In 1730, the English hymnographer and catechism writer Isaac Watts argued even more directly:

[I]f by virtue of a faithful memory persons should retain the words which they have learned in childhood, they will vainly imagine themselves furnished with a set of principles of religion, though they feel no power of them upon conscience in the conduct of life; and all this because these articles do not lie in the heart, or even in the understanding, as a set of principles for practice, but rather in the head or memory as a set of phrases.19

In stating that children should not memorize what they cannot comprehend, the Mathers and Watts disagree with Baxter; to them, catechumens must understand a catechism from the outset. If they do not, they will be deluded into thinking themselves morally prepared for life and will therefore think as they should not and comport themselves poorly, as Watts avers. Such is the case with Brown. Clearly, his attitude before leaving for the woods is contrary to the Puritan way of thinking conveyed in Milk for Babes, a text he should have mastered. His decidedly non-Puritan faith in the goodness of humanity permits awareness of human corruption, once it comes, to destroy the young man's heart. David Levin, although he does not discuss the catechism, implies something similar in asserting that “Young Goodman Brown” is “about Brown's … discovery of the possibility of universal evil.”20 I would amend Levin's statement by changing the word possibility to certainty. As a Puritan reared in Salem Village, Brown should not have to make such a discovery as a young adult, years after Goody Cloyse taught him the doctrine of innate depravity during their catechism lessons.

Even had Brown not understood human imperfection from the catechism or other sources as he progressed into adulthood, he should have suspected it because of his own moral shortcomings, his latent desires to violate religious precepts set forth in the catechism and especially the Ten Commandments. To the Puritans, the Commandments were extremely important: they served as a summary of scriptural instruction on proper behavior in every circumstance. In fact, Cotton stresses their significance by devoting twenty-seven sets of questions and answers to them in his catechism.21 How successfully does Brown obey the Commandments? Either in his dream or in reality, in the woods or after returning to Salem Village, he disobeys all of them to one degree or another.

When Goody Cloyse, in the course of catechistical training, presumably asked young Brown to explain the meaning of the First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other Gods but me,” the proper response would have been, “That we should worship the onely true God, and no other beside him” (MB [Spiritual Milk for Babes], 2). Similarly, when she asked for Brown's understanding of the Second Commandment, “Thou shalt not make to thy self any graven image, &c.,” he would have said, “That we should worship the true God with true worship such as God hath ordained, not such as man hath invented” (MB, 2-3). But Brown violates both commandments. He might not worship his guide, the devil figure, but he permits his companion to manipulate him in an almost godlike manner. He obeys his cicerone. And as Brown moves toward the forest altar, he prepares to worship the “dark figure,” the “Shape of Evil,” who is about to initiate the converts into “the communion of [their] race” (86), which is to say into evil. Only awakening from his dream, if such it is, keeps Brown from worshiping under the direction of this minister, who is hardly the equivalent of a Puritan divine. Brown accepts and embraces for the remainder of his life the man's dark message that converts “shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot”—a message that differs from Cotton's at the beginning of the catechism by emphasizing only the negative and by urging mortals “to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin” (87).

In explaining his understanding of the Third Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, &c.,” Brown would have said, “To make use of God, and the good things of God, to his Glory, and our good; not vainly, not unreverently, nor unprofitably” (MB, 3). After observing (or dreaming about) people in the woods and then returning home, Brown cannot acknowledge that there are “good things of God” and that he lives among them, flawed as he believes Faith and the others are. Not only does he fail to use the townspeople to glorify God, he also distances himself from them emotionally, revealing his vanity and arrogance, his irreverence and ignorance. Instead of glorifying his creator, Brown cares only about preserving himself from the threat of spiritual contamination. As he finds others “unprofitable” to him, so too does he become to them, although Faith apparently continues loving him for the remainder of his life. In separating himself from his fellow mortals, he violates the Third Commandment.

Following his return to Salem Village, Brown might or might not rest on the Sabbath; certainly, though, this morose young man never frolics then, or at any time. However, disillusioned with humanity and most especially with the church officials, he does not perform the Lord's work or feel close to God, even on Sunday. Therefore, he disobeys the Fourth Commandment, “Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day, &c.,” which means that “we should rest from labor and much more from play on the Lord's day; that we may draw nigh to God in holy Duties” (MB, 3-4).

Brown also violates the Fifth Commandment, “Honour thy Father and thy Mother, that thy dayes may be long in the Land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” When Goody Cloyse asked Brown to define father and mother, he would have replied, “All our Superiors, whether in Family, School, Church, and Common-wealth”; and in detailing what honor he owes these people, he would have said, “Reverence, obedience, and (when I am able) Recompense” (MB, 4). Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin are clearly Brown's religious superiors. Before his night in the woods, Brown had revered these people, but he did not truly obey them in the sense that he did not honor their teachings about human depravity. And after this night, he reveres them no more. To him they are now hypocrites whose apparent goodness veils corruption. In the woods, Brown does honor his father, or what he believes is “the shape of his own dead father” (86). The image of the elder Brown beckons him to the ceremony and Brown obeys. But a woman (the narrator suggests that she might be Brown's mother) warns him not to come forward. He disobeys her. And at the end of the tale, if not at the beginning, Faith is clearly Brown's superior. She obviously loves her husband, presumably functions more or less normally in her society, and exhibits an enthusiasm for life, whereas Brown, following his night in the woods, loves nobody (except possibly himself), quits functioning as a social being, and necessarily withdraws from life. In rejecting Faith upon returning to Salem Village, Brown humiliates and dishonors her. In fact, of the characters in the tale, Brown honors only the image of his father, the man who apparently conducts the ceremony in the woods, and his guide.

Just as surely as Brown fails to obey the Fifth Commandment, he also violates the Sixth, “Thou shalt do no murther.” Religious novitiates indicated their understanding of this commandment by saying it means “[t]hat we should not shorten the life, or health of our selves or others, but preserve both” (MB, 4). Brown lives a long life, long enough to see Faith “an aged woman” (90) and to have grandchildren follow his corpse to its grave. But his emotional health, his psychological health, dies during his night in the woods; his long life is essentially a long nonlife. The murder Brown commits is spiritual suicide.

If Brown does not violate the Seventh Commandment, it is not for lack of trying. Even Puritan prepubescents must have known what “Thou shalt not commit Adultery” really means; but when asked to define it, they said, “To defile our selves, or others with unclean Lusts.” And to indicate that they understood their responsibilities, they stated that their duty was to “[c]hastity, to possess [their] vessels in holiness and honour” (MB, 5). Definitions usually clarify, not obfuscate; but even today, adults might use euphemisms as vague and locutions as evasive as these in a similar context. At this late date, though, few would doubt that Brown goes to the woods primarily for sexual reasons.22 Support for this interpretation emerges in sexual imagery, as when Goody Cloyse says that “there is a nice young man to be taken into communion to-night,” or when Deacon Gookin says that “there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion” (79, 81). Other evidence includes the apparent presence in the woods of the governor's wife and other women, many of them exalted, but all without their husbands. Their companions are “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes” (85). I would suggest that Brown goes to the woods to participate in an orgy, in clear violation of the Seventh Commandment.

Puritan youth were taught that “Thou shalt not steal,” the Eighth Commandment, forbade them “to take away another mans goods, without his leave, or to spend [their] own without benefit to [them]selves or others” (MB, 5). In separating himself emotionally from Faith and their children for the remainder of his life, Brown steals from himself and from them the life of normal familial interaction that they might reasonably have anticipated.23 In similarly subtle ways, he disobeys the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy Neighbour.” Brown would have explained to Goody Cloyse that bearing false witness means “to lye falsly, to think or speak untruly of our selves or others” (MB, 6). He certainly thinks “untruly.” Not only does he perceive Faith, Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin incorrectly, both before and after his night away from home, but in thinking himself superior to them upon returning to Salem Village, he thinks untruly about himself.

Finally, Brown violates the Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet, &c.” This commandment forbids “[l]ust after the things of other men, and want of contentment with our own” (MB, 6). Brown is not content. Either he is unhappy with Faith, or he is not yet able to be faithful to her sexually, or both. Surely, when he goes to the woods, he knows what is happening there “this night … of all nights in the year” (74), and he wants to participate. Even though he does not frolic with the women he desires, he consummates a physical relationship with more than one of them in his heart. This newlywed defiles himself with what he once would have identified, in explaining the Seventh Commandment to Goody Cloyse, as “unclean Lusts” (MB, 5).

The fact that Brown violates, or dreams of violating, the Commandments either in the woods or later in Salem Village suggests that he had urges to disobey them before leaving home.24 And if so, he should have surmised from observing himself, if not from having studied the catechism with Goody Cloyse or from living in a Puritan society, that people are fundamentally corrupt, precisely as Cotton states in Milk for Babes. That Brown fails to honor the Commandments does not make him unique among mortals, however; nor does it mean that he is necessarily destined for eternal damnation. Rather, Cotton relates in the catechism that because of Adam's sin, no human is capable of keeping the Commandments:

Q. Have you kept all these Commandements?

Ans. No, I and all men are sinners.

(MB, 6)

Had Brown understood from childhood that humans, all of whom are depraved, cannot obey the Commandments, that fidelity to God's law is impossible, he would not be so surprised to see, or to think he sees, the several worthies preparing to act in a decidedly non-Christian manner in the woods. But because he did not learn this lesson well, he is surprised; and as a result, he thinks that, in the words of Emily Miller Budick, “evil is our only reality and the devil our only God.”25 For the remainder of his life he retains this view, which destroys him.

After presenting the Ten Commandments, Cotton concludes the catechism by addressing salvation once again. Doing so is structurally appropriate because it reintroduces the hope expressed in the first catechism answer that God “can save me” (MB, 1). It is also theologically appropriate, the natural Christian conclusion to a traditional presentation of the gospel, as interpreted by St. Paul in Romans 8.26 Cotton devotes twenty-eight sets of questions and answers to the possibility of salvation, illustrating its importance. Also, in this section, he requires catechism students to give their longest, most detailed answers, forcing them to address some of the fine points concerning salvation.

In helping Brown with the conclusion to the catechism, Goody Cloyse would have taught him that because all mortals are sinners, only Jesus can save them. But in order to gain salvation, they must look to the Bible, which teaches their need for a savior. Although unworthy of Christ's grace, they may attain it by denying themselves and demonstrating faith in him, by praying to God, by repenting (detesting their sins and asking forgiveness), and by attaining a new life (rejecting their corrupt state and walking before Christ as church members). The faithful of the church have a covenant wherein they give themselves to God, whom they worship, and to the church officials. Baptism and communion, the seals of the covenant, provide for resurrection from the dead on Judgment Day, a time when God will determine the fate of all souls on the basis of works performed in conjunction with the faith that gives them merit in God's sight.27 Some souls will reside in heaven, some in hell.

Brown fulfills only one of the requirements for attaining salvation, and it is one in which he was necessarily passive. Assuming he was born in the late 1660s to church members, he would have been baptized as an infant. Even had his parents not demonstrated evidence of saving faith and therefore not been recognized as full church members, the Half-Way Covenant of 1662 permitted the newborn Brown to be baptized.28 But following his night in the woods, Brown apparently does not subject himself to the Bible, or at least not to the New Testament, if his rejection of the imperfect but admirable members of his society and his long, somber life are any indications. In refusing to deny himself, Brown demonstrates a lack of faith in Christ, which makes praying for deliverance irrelevant. He does not repent his sins. While he attains a new life, it is, in its gloominess, the antithesis of the positive new life Cotton requires in the catechism. Since Brown probably no longer remains a member of the church, he cannot properly subject himself to God or the clergy, thus rendering himself ineligible to receive holy communion, one of the seals of the covenant.29 According to Cotton's teachings, then, Brown's soul will not find eternal residence with God in heaven but will reside forever in hell.

Indeed, Connolly and Grayson state correctly that the Puritan catechism treats the issue of innate depravity, as any text detailing the tenets of Puritanism must. But Milk for Babes does so only briefly, at the beginning of the text. As the Bible progresses from the talionic Old Testament to the caritative New Testament, so does Cotton's catechism progress, beginning with the fifth answer, from judgment to hope. Because it is essentially a vade mecum for living morally and attaining salvation, it is a hopeful, not a pessimistic, document. Clearly, then, Connolly misstates in claiming that the “catechism teaches the way to the devil and not the way to heaven”; and Grayson errs in proclaiming that “Connolly is right about the deleterious effects of the catechism.”30

Aware that the Salem Village of Brown's time used Milk for Babes, Hawthorne astutely has his narrator state that “there was a world of meaning” in Brown's comment, “That old woman taught me my catechism” (80). Indeed, there is considerable meaning; the narrator does not speak idly—or ironically. Brown incriminates himself as one who has been unable to assimilate into his view of humanity the fundamental beliefs of his faith and of his society, as Cotton expresses them. Before leaving home, Brown thinks mortals close to perfection; an understanding of the catechism would have disabused him of this assumption. But after returning home from his night in the woods, he considers irredeemable these people he has revered. This judgment, too, is flawed. Since Brown never masters the lessons Goody Cloyse tried to teach him, he cannot fit spiritually, emotionally, or psychologically into his own society. As a result, he becomes, like Hawthorne's Wakefield, an “Outcast of the Universe”31 on whose tombstone “they carved no hopeful verse … ; for his dying hour was gloom” (90).


  1. See Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860, ed. Harrison Hayford et al., vol. 9 of The Writings of Herman Melville (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press and The Newberry Library, 1987), 251-52; Hyatt H. Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), 14, 59, 60-61, 119, 209-10, 253; Richard Harter Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, rev. ed. (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 15-32; and Frederick Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966; Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1989), 98-106. Crews disavows the psychological underpinnings of his study in the afterword to the reprint edition; see especially 278-79.

  2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” in Mosses from an Old Manse, ed. William Charvat et al., vol. 10 of the Centenary Edition of The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1974), 78; hereafter cited parenthetically by page number.

  3. Michael J. Colacurcio, The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), 288; Neal Frank Doubleday, Hawthorne's Early Tales: A Critical Study (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1972), 205; Sheldon W. Liebman, “The Reader in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1975, ed. C. E. Frazer Clark Jr. (Englewood, CO: Microcard Editions Books, 1975), 157; Melinda M. Ponder, Hawthorne's Early Narrative Art, vol. 9 of Studies in American Literature (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 52-62, 138-39.

  4. Thomas E. Connolly, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism,” American Literature 28 (1956): 375, 373.

  5. Robert C. Grayson, “Curdled Milk for Babes: The Role of the Catechism in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 16 (Spring 1990): 1, 5, 3.

  6. Marion L. Kesselring, Hawthorne's Reading, 1828-1850: A Transcription and Identification of Titles Recorded in the Charge-Books of the Salem Athenaeum (New York: New York Public Library, 1949), 56. Grayson mistakenly states that Hawthorne himself withdrew the volume three times (“Curdled Milk for Babes,” 3). Also see William Bentley, “A Description and History of Salem,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 6 (1799): 260.

  7. See Kesselring, Hawthorne's Reading, 50; and Joseph B. Felt, The Annals of Salem, From Its First Settlement (Salem: W[illiam] and S[tephen] B[radshaw] Ives, 1827), 207. The Salem church had jurisdiction over the Salem Village church until their separation in 1689 (Bentley, “A Description and History of Salem,” 266). Therefore, until at least that date the catechism used in Salem, Milk for Babes, would also have been used in Salem Village.

  8. There are seven extant seventeenth-century editions of John Cotton's Milk for Babes in English, as well as a translation into Massachusett by Grindal Rawson:

    Milk for Babes (London: J[ane] Coe for Henry Overton, 1646). Wing 6443.

    Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England (Cambridg[e], MA: S[amuel] G[reen] for Hezekiah Usher, 1656). Evans 42.

    Spirituall Milk for Boston Babes in Either England (London: Henry Cripps, 1657). Wing 6462A.

    Spiritual Milk for Babes (London: Henry Cripps, 1662). Wing 6459A.

    Spiritual Milk for Babes (London: Peter Parker, 1668). Wing 6460.

    Spiritual Milk for Babes (London: Peter Parker, 1672). “Corrected in Quotations by L. H. 1665.” Wing 6461.

    Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, in Either England (Boston, 1684). Evans 39225.

    Nashauanittue Meninnunk wutch Mukkiesog, trans. Grindal Rawson (Cambridge, MA: Samuel Green for Bartholomew Green, 1691). Evans 550.

    Although substantive textual differences exist among the editions in English, they do not affect meaning. Other editions reportedly were published in London in 1648, Cambridge in 1668, and Boston in 1690; and there might have been other seventeenth-century editions. See Wilberforce Eames, Early New England Catechisms: A Bibliographical Account of Some Catechisms Published before the Year 1800, For Use in New England (1898; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.), 24-25. In this essay, I follow the established practice of referring to Cotton's catechism as Milk for Babes.

  9. If Milk for Babes were unavailable to Hawthorne under its own title, he would nevertheless have had access to it in numerous eighteenth-century editions of The New-England Primer. See Charles F. Heartman, The New-England Primer Issued Prior to 1830 (New York: Bowker, 1934).

  10. John Cotton, Spiritual Milk for Babes (London: Peter Parker, 1672), 1-2; hereafter cited parenthetically as MB, with page number. In quoting from Cotton's text, I make no effort to reproduce the long s; I also do not include the marginal glosses to biblical verses. I base my use of this particular edition on the following reasoning: First, I assume that the tale is set in 1692 (due to the suggestions of witchcraft) and, further, that the protagonist is in his mid-twenties. In a demographic study of Andover, Massachusetts (fewer than fifteen miles from Salem Village), Philip J. Greven Jr. shows that from 1690 to 1694, Andover men married at the average age of 23.5 (see Four Generations: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1970], 117). Hawthorne had access to similar demographic data about Andover: in September 1834, only seven months before the publication of “Young Goodman Brown,” he withdrew from the Salem Athenaeum Abiel Abbot's History of Andover from Its Settlement to 1829 (Andover: Flagg and Gould, 1829), which includes, on 185-86, birth and death data from 1652 through 1700 (Kesselring, Hawthorne's Reading, 43). Assuming that Salem Village's data would be similar to Andover's, and that Brown married at the average age in 1692 (he and Faith have been married for only three months at the tale's opening), then were he a real person, he would have been born in 1668 or 1669. Because he would have begun catechism lessons around age five, it is likely that Goody Cloyse would have taught him using the 1672 edition of Cotton's text, the one I cite here. (Grayson cites the edition of 1646.)

  11. The New-England Primer Enlarged (Boston: S[amuel] Kneeland and T[imothy] Green, 1727), 7. Evans 2927. This is the earliest extant text of the Primer, which was possibly first published before 1690. For further information, see Paul Leicester Ford, The New-England Primer: A History of Its Origin and Development (1897; reprint, n.p.: Columbia Univ., 1962); George Livermore, The Origin, History and Character of the New England Primer (1849; reprint, New York: Cha[rle]s Fred[erick] Heartman, 1915); Worthington Chauncey Ford, “The New England Primer,” in Bibliographical Essays: A Tribute to Wilberforce Eames (1924; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1968), 61-65; A. S. W. Rosenbach, Early American Children's Books (1933; reprint, New York: Kraus Reprint, 1966); Heartman, New-England Primer Issued Prior to 1830; William Sloane, Children's Books in England and America in the Seventeenth Century (New York: King's Crown Press/Columbia Univ., 1955), 191-93; Cornelia Meigs, ed., A Critical History of Children's Literature: A Survey of Children's Books in English from Earliest Times to the Present, rev. ed. (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1969), 110-19; Daniel A. Cohen, “The Origin and Development of the New England Primer,Children's Literature 5 (1976): 52-57; and David H. Watters, “‘I Spake as a Child’: Authority, Metaphor and The New-England Primer,Early American Literature 20 (1985-86): 193-213. No seventeenth-century hornbook is known to exist.

  12. If Brown understood the catechism, he would know that a relationship with another person does not influence the ultimate disposition of one's soul. One does not gain salvation by proxy, as it were.

  13. Cf. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” in Twice-Told Tales, ed. William Charvat et al., vol. 9 of the Centenary Edition of The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1974), 200. Here, in what is possibly Hawthorne's earliest published tale, a “Power of Evil” performs the “impious baptismal rite.”

  14. Colacurcio, Province of Piety, 301.

  15. Richard Mather, A Farewel Exhortation to the Church and People of Dorchester in New-England (Cambridg[e], MA: Samuel Green, 1657), 6.

  16. Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory; or, A Summ of Practical Theologie, and Cases of Conscience (London: Robert White for Nevill Simmons, 1673), pt. 2, 582. Baxter argues that learning the words of a catechism without mastering their meaning will make understanding easier when children are capable of comprehending theological concepts. Then, instead of struggling to learn both words and meaning, they can focus on the latter. Also see David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 37.

  17. Cotton Mather, A Family Well-Ordered; or, An Essay to Render Parents and Children Happy in One Another (Boston: B[artholomew] Green and J[ohn] Allen for Michael Perry and Benjamin Eliot, 1699), 19-20.

  18. Cotton Mather, Maschil; or, The Faithful Instructor. Offering, Memorials of Christianity in Twenty Six Exercises upon the New-English Catechism (Boston: B[artholomew] Green and J[ohn] Allen for Samuel Phillips, 1702), 11.

  19. Isaac Watts, “A Discourse on the Way of Instruction by Catechisms, and of the Best Method of Composing Them,” in The Works of the Reverend and Learned Isaac Watts, D. D. Containing, besides His Sermons, and Essays on Miscellaneous Subjects, Several Additional Pieces, Selected from His Manuscripts (London: J[ohn] Barfield, 1810), 3:214.

  20. David Levin, “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” American Literature 34 (1962): 351.

  21. Cotton also writes elsewhere about the importance of the Ten Commandments to the Puritans: “[A]ll the sins and good things found in the wlhoe [sic] Bible, are to be ranked within the compasse of the ten Commandments.” See A Practical Commentary; or, An Exposition with Observations, Reasons, and Uses upon the First Epistle Generall of John (London: R[obert] I[bbitson] and E[dward] C[rouch] for Thomas Parkhurst, 1656), 235.

  22. For a discussion of sexuality in “Young Goodman Brown,” see Crews, Sins of the Fathers, 98-106.

  23. Unless Faith is pregnant with more than one child before Brown leaves her for the woods, they have sexual intercourse after he returns, and probably more than once. Their “children” follow his body to the grave (90).

  24. If Brown actually violates the Commandments, as opposed to merely dreaming about disobeying them, he might be violating civil as well as ecclesiastical law. In 1690 the General Court encouraged ministers to suppress such sins as “Unbelief, Worldliness, Heresy, Pride, Wrath, Strife, Envy, and the Neglect of communion with God, in both Natural and Instituted Worship, and the Contempt of the everlasting Gospel, with a shameful want of due Family-Instruction, which are the Roots of Bitterness in the midst of us” (By the Governour and General Court of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay [Cambridge, 1690], [2]).

  25. Emily Miller Budick, Fiction and Historical Consciousness: The American Romance Tradition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1989), 91.

  26. See, for example, Romans 8:38-39, quoted from the Authorized (King James) Version:

    For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

    Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  27. Cotton states elsewhere that mortals cannot know, on the basis of their works, if their souls are heaven bound: “Sanctification … is no evidence, or witness of our union with Christ” (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, As It Is Dispensed to the Elect Seed, Effectually unto Salvation, 2nd ed. [London: William Miller, 1662], 43). This belief, of course, does not contradict Cotton's statement in the catechism that God judges souls according to mortals' works. For discussions of Cotton's attitude toward works, especially in the context of Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian controversy, see Larzer Ziff, The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962), 110-12; William K. B. Stoever, “A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven”: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1978), 54-55; R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), 167-83; and Everett Emerson, John Cotton, rev. ed. (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 64-67, 85-96.

  28. I refer to the fifth proposition in the Half-Way Covenant, which permits children of church members to be baptized:

    Church-members who were admitted in minority, understanding the Doctrine of Faith, and publickly professing their assent thereto; not scandalous in life, and solemnly owning the Covenant before the Church, wherein they give up themselves and their children to the Lord, and subject themselves to the Government of Christ in the Church, their children are to be Baptized.”

    (Propositions Concerning the Subject of Baptism and Consociation of Churches [Cambridge, MA: S(amuel) G(reen) for Hezekiah Usher, 1662], 19)

  29. Colacurcio suggests otherwise. He says, “Goodman Brown evidently continued to be accepted at the communion table” (Province of Piety, 303). But following his return to Salem Village, Brown has no reason for wishing to remain in the church. Further, because he can no longer meet church membership requirements, as Cotton presents them, he could conceivably be excommunicated. Following the adoption of the Half-Way Covenant in 1662, Puritan churches continued to excommunicate members “for misconduct or for openly expressed heretical ideas” (Edmund S. Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1963; Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1965], 127).

  30. Connolly, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” 373; Grayson, “Curdled Milk for Babes,” 5.

  31. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Wakefield,” in Twice-Told Tales, 140.

James C. Keil (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 33-55.

[In the following essay, Keil focuses on the blurring of masculine and feminine spheres in “Young Goodman Brown” and suggests that the reader needs to take into account historical as well as psychological implications of gender in the tale.]

Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” traditionally has been read as an examination of crises of faith, morality, and/or psychosexuality. Early readings focused on questions of theology and conduct,1 but since the opening years of the 1950s, a second category of readings has emphasized the psychosexual elements. Roy Male, for example, argued that “the dark night in the forest is essentially a sexual experience, though it is also much more,” while Frederick Crews observed that in his dream experience, the young, newly wed, and still oedipal Brown, fleeing from the sexuality of married love, removes himself to a place where he can voyeuristically and vicariously enjoy that which he directly shuns.2 The third important category of readings attempts to ground the story in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century documents about witchcraft to which Hawthorne had access. Most significant of these considerations are David Levin's contention that the most important topic of “Young Goodman Brown” is the theological and epistemological issue of “specter evidence” and Michael Colacurcio's thesis that the historical documents from which Hawthorne worked, especially those involving how you tell a saint from a witch or any other sinner, limit the scope of Hawthorne's investigation into Brown's (or his own) psyche to that made possible by the language and content of the Puritan documents.3 In all three of these critical categories, the authors generally assume, if they address the matter at all, that Hawthorne is concerned with late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century issues and events surrounding American Puritan life. We must recognize, however, that—contra the assumptions that some scholars make about Hawthorne as a Puritan historian—Hawthorne could not re-create Puritan history in his historical tales; he could only construct it, basing his construction upon his readings of Puritan documents and the experience that he, as a nineteenth-century, middle-class New Englander, brought to them.

At least one reader suggests that part of the experience Hawthorne brought to the Puritan documents was his familiarity with contemporary documents. Frank Shuffleton has pointed out convincingly that, in the climactic scene of the “witches' sabbath,” Hawthorne appeared to have been working not only from Puritan archives but also from Frances Trollope's contemporary observations on the demonic aspects of evangelical tent meetings in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Without denying the crises of faith, morality, and psychosexuality that earlier critics had discovered in “Young Goodman Brown,” Shuffleton notes that Hawthorne was likely to find those issues in contemporary as well as Puritan documents and events. Moreover, in recognizing that “the story's meaning has an anchor in a specific social situation in Hawthorne's nineteenth-century present, we understand the balancing power of the specific richness of the story's historical knowledge as detailed by so many scholars.”4 If theology, morality, and psychosexuality were a devilish brew for Hawthorne's Puritan ancestors, they were no less so for Hawthorne and his contemporaries. Hawthorne places the story in the seventeenth century in order to explore the nexus of past and present in New Englanders' attitudes towards these central life experiences.

In addition to the Puritan problems of telling the saintly from the damned and the innocent from the corrupt, “Young Goodman Brown” takes as part of its context fundamental changes in gender and gender relations in the growing middle-class world of New England. One aspect of these changes in gender and sexuality with which the story surely is concerned is the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, a discourse developed that sought to divide the world into public and private spheres based on gender.5 Men and women had lived socially, economically, and politically distinct lives in the Puritan period, but what is significant about the new, nineteenth-century gender ideology is that it constructed a “male” world that was even more and decidedly self-consciously distinct from the “female.” Men should be the “sole” economic providers of the household, working, increasingly, outside of it, in the public realm. Women should provide all the other needs of the family, laboring (although it was seldom seen as such) only within the house—a structure that during this period became known as the “home” and became identified primarily with women and their children.

Of particular relevance to Hawthorne's story, however, since its concerns are with transgression as much as catechism, is that in the last two decades historians have come to understand that the clear boundaries between male/female, public/private, and work/home were blurred—that these separate spheres, essential to constructions of the middle-class world and heretofore thought rigid barriers, more accurately should be seen as thresholds through which nineteenth-century Americans frequently passed.6 Moreover, historians have also confirmed that the 1830s was a critical decade of change.7 “Young Goodman Brown,” probably written no earlier than the initial years of the decade and published anonymously in 1835, chronicles Hawthorne's observations about the anxieties caused by such discrepancies between ideology and behavior. Young Goodman Brown, who has come to believe with religious fervor what he has been taught prior to marriage about the separation of spheres, is disoriented by the behavioral expectations he confronts once he has entered that institution. The ideology of separate spheres was not transgressed, Hawthorne seems to suggest in “Young Goodman Brown,” without some psychological and moral costs.


Michael Colacurcio has advised that readers look for the historical contexts of early Hawthorne stories in the opening paragraphs, and that is precisely where this reading will begin.8 It is here in the opening paragraphs that we are introduced to both a Puritan setting and another of what Shuffleton has called Hawthorne's contemporary “anchors.” The story begins with an explicit presentation of issues of gender, sexuality, and intimacy, all of which take place in the doorway between public and private.

Young Goodman Brown came forth, at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown.9

In this scene, we learn that the setting of the story is Salem village, the site of many mysterious activities in the minds of Hawthorne's contemporaries, and the time is sunset. The scene takes place in the doorway of the Browns' house, a threshold that both joins and separates not only private and public but, literally in this case, female and male. It is a threshold that both characters violate for reasons of intimacy, although she, as we see, is clearly the more intimate of the two. About the two characters we learn that the man is young, that he is embarking on a nighttime journey, and that, apparently, he is distracted or hurried, since he fails to kiss his wife before leaving the house. Of the woman, we learn that she is married to the young man, is named Faith, is pretty, and, although she modestly wears a cap over her hair, she has adorned it with pink ribbons.

The ambiguity in the description of Faith—is or is not her name a sign of her spirituality or faithfulness? is she modest or immodest?—will recur throughout the story, and this ambiguity is the cause of Brown's great sadness and the subject of much of the scholarship on the story. Here it is important to note that the ambiguity is repeated also in her not waiting for him to return to kiss her, in her thrusting her own head through the doorway and “letting” the breeze animate the ribbons with which she has dressed her cap. Not only is the “letting” ambiguous when combined with the thrusting, “letting” is an activity that itself raises questions about who is in control of the action. Having thrust her head through the doorway in order to give her husband his goodbye kiss, Faith whispers “softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear,”

“Dearest heart, … pr’y thee, put off your journey until sunrise, and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!”

[P. 74]

Surely Hawthorne means for us to think of this story as taking place in Puritan Massachusetts.10 Certain other factors, however—such as the threshold setting, the description of Faith, the couple's bad dreams, the implication that he has failed to sleep in his own bed on other occasions—suggest a more contemporary setting. John Demos indicates that the early decades of the nineteenth century produced scads of literature on domestic life, and the “shrill tone of the new advice betrayed deep anxieties about the evolving shape and future prospects of the family.”11 It is of course the Browns' prospects for the future about which they are most concerned. The family was changing in fundamental ways in Hawthorne's lifetime, and many New Englanders were writing and reading about the uncertainty they felt. That domestic literature was supplemented by sexual advice literature that portrayed men as sexually predatory and—a distinct difference from the Puritan construction—women as virtually passionless. Unlike the Puritan ethos, this same nineteenth-century advice literature also threatened disaster if abstinence were not the rule in all aspects of non-procreative sexuality.12 It is unlikely that Hawthorne was unaware of this new literature on domestic life and human sexuality, but at the very least his story betrays the same profound anxieties about contemporary family and sexual life.

Although much of Brown's anxiety later in the story involves traditional suspicions that women are especially sexual creatures, a failing of which men must beware, Faith herself may better fit an ideal of womanhood popular in the magazine literature of Hawthorne's time. According to Lois Banner, Hawthorne “gave [this ideal] epic representation in the dovelike Hilda of The Marble Faun and the manipulated Priscilla of The Blithedale Romance.” Such a woman was known as the “steel-engraving lady” both for the “process by which she was created” and her own “moral rectitude”: “When her pictorial representation is colored, her complexion is white, with a blush of pink in her cheeks.”13 Attending a gala New York City ball in 1822, James Fenimore Cooper encountered the real-life counterparts of this American ideal: “‘There is something in the bloom, delicacy, and innocence of one of these young things, that reminds you of the conceptions which poets and painters have taken of the angels.’”14 The ideal's delicacy and spirituality were important; later in the story, Brown will refer to Faith as a “‘blessed angel on earth’” (p. 75). Another characteristic of the ideal is her youth, which “underscored her purity and reflected both the nineteenth-century romanticization of childhood and its tendency to infantilize women, to view them as creatures of childlike disposition.”15 Such characterizations of femininity contrast quite specifically with Puritan constructions of womanhood, which were based on Eve's seduction by the devil and her deception of Adam in the Garden of Eden.16

Perhaps as the last in a series of efforts to keep Brown home this night, Faith pleads with her husband not only to stay home but to sleep with her. The young wife's desire for intimacy with her husband could not be more explicit. Brown's reply is no less direct:

“My love and my Faith, … of all nights in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee. My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done ’twixt now and sunrise. What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married!”

[P. 74]

In this passage Brown has deliberately conflated his wife's name with a belief system. Hawthorne's construction of Brown's speech in this manner, his association of religion with the role of wife, suggests both Puritan and contemporary possibilities. According to Edmund Morgan, for example, Puritans feared that love of spouse could rival and interfere with love of Christ. On the other hand, in Hawthorne's lifetime women, thought to be morally superior to men, were entrusted with preparing children for Christian salvation. Nancy Cott argues that the evangelicals of the early decades “linked moral agency to female character with a supporting link to passionlessness.”17 If Hawthorne's concerns are as much with contemporary as Puritan gender ideology, then having a wife named Faith seems an appropriate characteristic for his main character. However, except for Brown's distrust of Faith, it is at this point in Hawthorne's story that, although the setting seems Puritan and both periods sometimes confuse sex with “going to the devil,” the gender relations begin to have more in common with nineteenth-century ideology and behavior than Puritan history.

In Brown's reply to Faith, there is an element of huffy self-importance, as if Brown were giving a prepared speech. Here we find an indication that the events of the forest are not entirely responsible for Brown's becoming a “darkly meditative, a distrustful” man (p. 89); for all his youth and inexperience, Brown is already very serious, and this hyper-seriousness is part of his foolishness. In insisting that he must leave Faith this night, Brown misreads her sexual desire and fear of being alone as anxiety about his marital fidelity. Note the irony of Brown's question: he doesn’t realize that it is a sexual life with her that he is running away from when he portrays himself to his young wife (“dost thou doubt me already”) as a licentious stud who would take other lovers after only three months of marriage, a self-portrait that suggests nineteenth-century manhood.

In the nineteenth century, with many men away from the home for long periods of time, middle-class Americans needed a gender ideology that sanctified woman's isolation among her children. Whereas men had played important roles in the moral upbringing, education, and socialization of children in former periods, in the early nineteenth century such responsibilities all but evaporated for many middle-class men. At the same time, women's important role in the economic production that sustained the household of the eighteenth century was, at least in the discourse, eliminated. “Having required the bourgeois woman to be both elegant and nonproductive,” and leaving her on her own with the children all day, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg asks, “how could the bourgeois man ever trust her virtue or rest securely in the symbols of his class” (i.e., primarily, in his elegant woman and well-kept children)?18 What was to keep this consumer, rather than producer, of resources from straying—economically, sexually, morally, religiously? The solution was a socially redeemed image of womanhood: woman as Angel of the Home. Middle-class woman's sole province became the production of “home” life, where the values of the culture could be instilled into the items she produced, her children.19

Yet Faith both conforms to and violates nineteenth-century ideology. Standing inside the doorway, she is pretty, modest, discreet, and her name suggests her spirituality and her devotion to her husband. At the same time, she is, within the terms of nineteenth-century ideology, aggressive in her sexuality. The reversal of the expected that we see Brown encounter on the threshold of his own home is probably not unprecedented. His language seems to suggest that marriage may have been a rude awakening for him. Brown's discovery of Faith's sexuality may have shattered his conception of the passivity and disinterest that women were supposed to demonstrate about sex, and this knowledge may have threatened the security of his home. The events that take place in the woods may be nothing more than his playing out of his anxious fantasies about Faith's sexuality and the ideology of separate spheres that he demonstrates in his speech and behavior at the entrance of his home.

The story's introduction, then, describes several threshold experiences, not just because it takes place in a doorway (although that too is important to our understanding of the action of the public/private discourse) but because it is this parting of Faith and Brown that defines their future intimacy. That is to say, from now on they will cross this threshold repeatedly. Intercourse is also physically and emotionally a threshold experience, and the act itself is suggested in the opening paragraphs where Faith and Brown repeatedly stick their heads in and out of a doorway graced by her pink ribbons.20 There is much about the physical act of sex—the orgasms, the levels of intensity, the sleeping in one's own bed—that involves thresholds, but so too does the emotional aspect, particularly the intimacy that may proceed from as well as contribute to the physical experience. Whatever we may think today, coition and orgasm were not the sine qua non of human sexuality in the nineteenth century; a wide range of intimate activities constituted sexuality.21 But notice also how those recurrent pink ribbons may have blurred Brown's whole notion of privacy, (woman's) purity, and the sanctity of the separate woman's sphere. Brown encounters these ribbons adorning the public world everywhere he goes: each time he sees Faith sticking her head out of the doorway, he notices them, and later one floats down out of the forest sky to convince him that “‘There is no good on earth’” and to the devil “‘is this world given’” (p. 83).22

What happens in the woods, then, is also part of this public/private borderland, only here Brown realizes that the divisions are grotesquely blurred, and the sexual theme significantly expands to include the issues of manhood and fatherhood—much to Goodman Brown's chagrin.


As we follow our new husband into the woods, we notice that the image of the threshold recurs when Brown looks back at Faith before turning the corner of the meetinghouse and, presumably, going out of her sight. Upon entering the woods, he finds that the “dreary road” he has chosen is “darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind.” The trees seem to cut him off effectively from his life with Faith and from Salem village. He will soon pass a “crook” in the road, which will further isolate him. Or so it would seem. His only emotions at this point are his loneliness—the same emotion his wife is, presumably, experiencing—and his guilt. However, even this guilt and loneliness, we are told on two occasions, may be occurring in the midst of “an unseen multitude” (p. 75). Having left the private sphere for the public as the story begins, Brown now apparently enters another sphere in which the public and private have been completely blurred.

As for Brown's thoughts of his wife and his pangs, if any, about his mission, we read:

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch I am, to leave her on such an errand! … Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night. But no, no! ’twould kill her to think it. Well; she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.”

[P. 75]

Brown finds it impossible to believe that Faith could imagine her husband so immoral.23 As we soon learn, however, Faith not only can imagine Brown on such a mission, she herself takes part in one. More interesting, perhaps, is his conviction that later he will “cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.” This vision suggests the strength of Brown's au courant identification of his wife as a morally superior “blessed angel.” But modern too is Brown's figuring of his wife as a mother to whose skirts he can cling, an image that bears witness to the difficulty Brown has in differentiating love of mother from love of wife, a dilemma with which Hawthorne and his contemporaries were not unfamiliar.

Wife came to replace mother as the moral guardian and disciplinarian of a nineteenth-century, middle-class young man's family. The move from mother's home to wife's, from child's world to man's world should not, then, be all that difficult. Of course, in reality it is far from simple, particularly because the grown son must spend half his life away from mother-wife in the world of men for which his childhood in woman's sphere has not prepared him. Many young men must have found adult life frightening and confusing. T. Walter Herbert believes that Hawthorne did: “Nathaniel maintained a ‘childlike’ persona because his effort to become a ‘man’ was complicated by the difficulties of crossing the gap between the maternal/marital sphere and the world beyond.”24

Faith has referred to what Brown is leaving home for as a “journey,” but it is clear that he does not think of it as such. He first refers to what he is about to do as an “‘errand’” and two sentences later as “‘work.’” There is also no doubt that Brown is both fleeing Faith and setting out to “go to the devil,” as he phrases his errand when talking about Goody Cloyse further on. What is it the devil can offer him that his Faith cannot? When Brown meets up with the devil, the gravely dressed man, mentioning the striking of the clock on Boston's Old South Church, reprimands Brown for being a “‘full fifteen minutes’” late (p. 75). In this reference to the clock, the “devil's work” becomes associated with contemporary work—labor of a modern, rational, time-ordered sort—and thus “going to the devil” carries the connotation of “men's business.” Here also in this encounter we notice that the devil has been expecting Brown and knows him by name and appearance, as if the two had met before (and we are reminded of Faith's implication that this is not the first night she has spent alone). When to the devil's reprimand Brown replies, “‘Faith kept me back a while,’” we realize that he knows the devil well enough to use his wife's first name with him and, further, that he believes the devil will accept the explanation that a woman was interfering with his ability to set to the “errand” or “work” that is to be done (p. 76).

Brown's morality is Manichean, gendered, as is his religious sensibility, which is reminiscent of the Puritans and evangelicals. He has been catechized to believe in the ideology of separate spheres, and his faith brooks no blurring of them. Figuring the world of wife/mother/home as on the side of good, angels, and heaven, Brown constructs the world of men/father/nonhome as siding with evil and the devil. Hence, we meet the devil in the shape of Brown's father and grandfather.

Brown's new traveling companion is described as being “about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features.” So similar are their appearances that “they might have been taken for father and son”; indeed, Goody Cloyse later recognizes the similarity immediately (p. 76). But Brown does not.25 Within the context of our present concerns, that lack of recognition can be understood as reflecting middle-class fathers' absence from the home. Middle-class mothers and children were not to cross the threshold of the father's soiled workplace (the disaster that could result when masculine space was invaded by the feminine is the subject of Hawthorne's “The Birthmark”), and so increasingly sons' experiences of what fathers did and who they were were limited to a few hours a day. Advice literature even urged that the son's sexual education be supervised by the mother.26

Brown's failure to recognize his father and to see the world as anything other than devil's work might also be attributed to the devil-father's magical power: “the only thing about [the devil-father], that could be fixed upon as remarkable, was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself, like a living serpent” (p. 76). In Brown's immature sensibility, in his underdeveloped sense of fatherhood and manhood, the father has never escaped the expression of his mature sexuality, his erect and animated phallus. It is in Brown's mind the most significant feature about him, in fact the devil-father's only remarkable feature.

The devil-father wishes to speed the pace of their travels and taunts Brown, saying: “‘this is a dull pace for the beginning of a journey. Take my staff, if you are so soon weary.’”27 Instead of accepting the challenge, Brown gives his companion his reasons for refusing to take up the staff: “‘having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples, touching the matter thou wot'st of’” (p. 76). That is to say, the son replies to the devil-father's taunt by challenging his moral authority by virtue of the “scruples” he learned in the woman's sphere to which he now would return.

In this passage we also learn why the appearance of the devil-father was not unexpected: the son had previously agreed to the rendezvous. It is nothing other than the sight and offering of that twisting, writhing, serpentine staff, then, that energizes the newlywed's scruples. As he has done more than once since he walked through the door of his home, young Goodman Brown hesitates, pauses, looks back. Even as he unconsciously walks on, urged forward by the devil-father, identified in all his “evil” sexuality as “he of the serpent,” the son objects to proceeding any further; again he renounces his “friend's” paternal relationship to him, claiming that his “‘father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him.’” The devil-father, smilingly reassuring young Brown that he need not fear being “‘the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path,’” confides that “‘I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans. … They were my good friends, both. … I would fain be friends with you, for their sake’” (pp. 76-77). The devil-father comforts Brown by promising him that he is following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps (which of course he literally is in this scene); he is fulfilling an honorable paternal tradition, and the devil-father would befriend Brown so that the tradition of the fathers might be perpetuated. Of course, the foremost and essential tradition of the fathers of any multi-generational family is the continuity of past, present, and future achieved through the production of a family, through intercourse and sexual intimacy, through the literal blurring of many boundaries between the genders.

When the naive young man insists that none of the patriarchs of his family engaged in “‘such wickedness,’” all being men of prayer and good works, the devil-father replies that, wicked or not, such behavior is common among all the patriarchs of the colony (p. 77). In the midst of going about his father's business, Brown next encounters, much to his surprise, a woman intruding upon their forest space; she is not just any woman, this Goody Cloyse, but Brown's religion teacher. Hiding out of her sight, Brown overhears an exchange between his traveling companion and his teacher which begins with the devil-father touching her neck with his staff and the old hag recognizing him as the devil “‘in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is.’” Despite the fact that someone has stolen her broomstick and the old woman must travel on foot, she is determined to get to the meeting because, she says, “‘they tell me, there is a nice young man to be taken into communion to-night’” (p. 79). As he had once extended it to Brown, the devil-father now offers his staff to Goody Cloyse to aid her on her journey to the evening's assembly, and she disappears from sight.

Goody Cloyse's interest in things sexual is explicit in this encounter; this and her appearance in the woods break down the supposed barrier between male and female, public and private, work and home, husband and wife.28 Brown calls it a “‘marvel’” to find Cloyse in the woods at night, and the narrator points out that it was Cloyse “who had taught [Brown] his catechism, in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin” (p. 78). After witnessing her intimacy with the devil-father, Brown reiterates that “‘[t]hat old woman taught me my catechism.’” Hawthorne's narrator emphasizes that “there was a world of meaning in this simple comment” (p. 80). Hawthorne's association of women and ministers with the religious education and spiritual welfare of the community is another characteristic of this part of the story that is more reminiscent of nineteenth-century gender relations than those of the Puritan period.29 Goody Cloyse's reference to Brown as that “‘silly fellow’” indicates some sense on her part, too, that much of his life Brown may have had trouble distinguishing belief from practice. Moreover, Goody Cloyse, in her references to “‘that silly fellow’” and the “‘nice young man to be taken into communion to-night,’” unwittingly has confused two aspects of Brown's identity: as child/innocent and as man/sexual creature.

As the devil-father and Brown proceed through the forest, the older man breaks off a branch of maple limb and fashions yet another walking staff. When Brown once again refuses to go any further, the devil-father suggests that he rest for a while and, before disappearing, throws the young man his staff. Brown then thinks he hears in the forest the voices of his spiritual patriarchs, his minister and Deacon Gookin, conversing about tonight's meeting. When one of them also stops to “pluck a switch,” Brown overhears Deacon Gookin saying that he is looking forward to the impending ceremony, where they will find “‘a goodly young woman to be taken into communion’” (p. 81). Shaken, Brown cannot decide whether or not what he is witnessing is real. His doubt is so great that, looking up into the night sky, he cannot make up his mind whether “there really was a Heaven above him” (p. 82).

Brown's belief system, his moral certainty, dependent as it seems to be on the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres with which he has been catechized, is quickly shattering in the heavily peopled forest. The voices of additional fellow townspeople fall on his ears, and it is obvious that all are hurrying to a late-night rendezvous. In the heart of this commotion, Brown hears “one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain” and for which the townspeople “both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward” (p. 82). Brown immediately recognizes the woman's voice as Faith's. But how much more ambiguous could Faith's voice be? She both is and is not a sexual creature in this description of her cries. She both is and is not present. Faith's disembodied voice, as well as Goody Cloyse's ability to fly, to travel effortlessly, without labor, may speak to the nature of Brown's gender fantasy. One recent scholar has suggested about the ideology of separate spheres that as it “engenders and demarcates the spaces of work and personal (as opposed to working) life, both labor and women are divested of their corporeality, defined as different rather than extensive with the body.”30 Brown screams Faith's name out into the night, only to have the forest mockingly echo his “cry of grief, rage, and terror.” Brown should indeed be terrorized by this experience, for he has built his entire belief system on the moral rectitude of his mother and wife—and on their rightful place nowhere but in the home.

Surely, Goody Cloyse and his Faith have no business in this forest of moral uncertainties. Brown listens in silence for a response to his cries, only to hear “a scream, drowned immediately in a loud murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept” by. Something substantial floats down out of the sky, filled as it is with insubstantial voices, and Brown snatches it off of a tree limb. It is one of Faith's pink ribbons. Just as the serpentine staff is Hawthorne's synecdoche for the sexual potential of the father, this pink ribbon is, as earlier implied, his synecdoche for the sexuality of Faith. Brown cries out, “‘My Faith is gone!’” It is usually argued that with this outburst, Brown proclaims his lost religious belief, but much more has been lost: his wife Faith is also literally gone; if she is present in the forest, then she cannot, according to his belief system, be who he thought her to be.

Now Brown takes up the devil-father's staff and hurries to the communion. Along the way he encounters a forest “peopled with frightful sounds.” And soon the scariest noisemaker in the forest is he: “all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown” (p. 83). Now deep in the heart of the forest, where no trail remains, Brown encounters “a numerous congregation … peopling the heart of the solitary woods” (p. 84). In fact, much of the adult population of Salem village has crowded into this space, both the “grave, reputable, and pious people” and “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes.” Most telling is the narrator's comment that it “was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints” (p. 85). Here in the forest private and public spheres blur into one another; or, perhaps, the difference between public and private is nowhere as certain as Brown once thought it was.

As Goodman Brown feels himself called forth with the rest of the converts, he “could have well-nigh sworn, that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance.” Indeed, he meets his spiritual fathers when his village “minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms, and led him to the blazing rock” to be initiated. But this “community of men, as we have seen, includes both men and women. Even his mother seems to appear, if only, in keeping with her role as angel of the home, to throw “out her hand to warn him back” (p. 86). The master of ceremonies, a kind of devil-preacher, then invites his “children” to turn around and see “‘all whom ye have reverenced from youth’” for their “‘righteousness, and prayerful aspirations.’” This night of their conversion, the children will learn of their spiritual leaders' “‘secret deeds’”:

“how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones!—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant's funeral.”

[P. 87]

These deeds are, broadly speaking, crimes of human sexuality. Clearly Brown's devil-preacher associates sin with sexuality.

The promised knowledge of the secret deeds will give the converts the ability to determine

“all the places—whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and [they] shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot. Far more than this! It shall be [theirs] to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power … can make manifest in deeds.”

[P. 87]

The language of human sexuality is omnipresent: “one mighty blood-spot,” “penetrate,” “bosom,” “fountain,” and “deep mystery.” Notice also the language of unification, of the “communion of [the] race,” and the way in which the devil-preacher contradicts Brown's belief in separate spheres, especially his belief that only certain wicked people, usually men, have “evil” sexual longings (p. 86).

When Brown is finally face to face with his wife, just as the “Shape of Evil” prepares “to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin,” he looks at his Faith and realizes what “polluted wretches would the next glance” mutually reveal them to be. He cries out to his wife to forego this baptism into adult sexuality and to “‘[l]ook up to heaven, and resist the Wicked One’” (p. 88). Brown actually reverses roles here, now imagining himself leading Faith up to heaven. But it is all too late. The entire forest scene, including his wife, vanishes. He is alone because he has refused to acknowledge his wife's sexuality in this threshold experience, just as he had refused it in the doorway of his home. He has rejected the blurring of separate spheres that is the reality of adult life. Once peopled with an invisible multitude, the forest around him now is calm and quiet.

The reader is unsure what has happened to Brown, but Brown himself is quite certain that in his last words to Faith in the forest, he has resisted the devil; every inhabitant of Salem village he had formerly trusted, however, is in league with the devil or, at the very least, has secret sins of which each should be ashamed. Brown is quite right, of course, but his very lack of sin is a crime.31 He returns to a community in which the blurring of the separate spheres is for the first time apparent to him, and he rejects it nonetheless. Deacon Gookin is inside his home now, but his words can be heard coming through his open window. Goody Cloyse, “that excellent old Christian,” stands outside her house at the latticed gate “catechising a little girl.” Brown's reaction—he snatches away the “child, as from the grasp of the fiend himself”—acknowledges his fears that the little girl could be deceived as he was—not by Goody Cloyse's catechizing, because Brown still believes in what he was taught, but by the old woman's failure to live what she preached. Approaching his home, he sees “the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him, that she skipt along the street, and almost kissed her husband before the whole village.” But whatever attractions Brown had to human sexuality when he left the village—as, for example, when he turned back to kiss his wife in the doorway—are now banished by the events he witnessed in the forest. So convinced is he of her sinfulness that “Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting” (p. 89).

Goodman Brown becomes a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man … from the night of that fearful dream” (p. 89). Whatever huffiness and silliness Brown possessed before leaving home has been tragically transformed by his forest refusal to recognize the blurring of spheres. Brown has “a goodly procession” of children and grandchildren, but clearly there was little joy in those sexual experiences (p. 90). The initiative was seldom his it seems: “Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith” (p. 89). And when he dies, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (p. 90).


When we penetrate the oedipal and sexual anxieties of Hawthorne's early fiction, we tend to divorce them from the historical, and when we unearth the stories' historical concerns, we tend to separate them from the psychosexual and from Hawthorne's immediate social environment. In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne was not only asking his readers to imagine the synthesis of the historical and the psychosexual; he was investigating for them the relationship between Puritan anxieties about faith, morality, sexuality, and gender and his contemporaries' and his own anxieties about those subjects. A renewed interest during the 1830s in the Puritan experience and what it could offer the present probably led Hawthorne to believe that his ancestral line and his own research into Puritan history uniquely qualified him to contribute to the discourse that sought to construct a bridge between past and present New England.

In addition to recognizing Hawthorne's examination of the nexus of Puritan and contemporary experience in “Young Goodman Brown,” we must also consider the importance of contemporary gender issues. Nina Baym has argued that a sophisticated feminist criticism of Hawthorne's work “would be based on the presumption that the question of women is the determining motive in Hawthorne's works, driving [his female characters] as it drives Hawthorne's male characters.”32 Recent works by T. Walter Herbert and Gillian Brown have, while throwing men into the equation, largely heeded this call.33 But when scholars turn their attention to issues of gender as well as other nineteenth-century contexts in Hawthorne, they tend to focus on the later works. This virtual neglect of the early material is repeated by David Leverenz, Joel Pfister, Richard H. Millington, and the above critics in their recent books focusing on Hawthorne as an observer of contemporary middle-class culture.34 It appears, then, that adequately to give Hawthorne his due, we must focus on the whole question of gender—both masculine and feminine—in all of his works—early and late. Such a masterful critic of human nature deserves no less than a fully comprehensive view.


  1. For a categorization of these readings, see D. M. McKeithan, “Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Interpretation,” Modern Language Notes 67 (1952): 93.

  2. Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957), p. 77; Frederick C. Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 102.

  3. David Levin, “Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown’” American Literature 34 (November 1962): 344-52; Michael J. Colacurcio, “Visible Sanctity and Specter Evidence: The Moral World of Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Essex Institute Historical Collections 110 (1974): 259-99.

  4. Frank Shuffleton, “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Revival Movement,” American Transcendental Quarterly 44 (Fall 1979): 321.

  5. I have tried wherever possible to pinpoint developments to the decade or decades in which they occurred, but many changes experienced by the middle class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries continued into and only rose to hegemony in the middle of the nineteenth century. Hence, what is true for Hawthorne's family in his youth and for seacoast New England towns like Salem—where the absence of fathers away on work for long periods of time, for example, was a common phenomenon—may not yet be true of America in general until mid century or later. Hawthorne is writing, in part, about the world he knows and for a geographically limited, middleclass reading audience cognizant of these developments from other domestic literature.

  6. Carl N. Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Ellen Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). Nina Baym claims that woman's fiction “showed the home thoroughly penetrated at every point by the world, dominated by man” and that it held out the hope that perhaps “the direction of influence could be reversed so that home values dominated the world” (Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels By and About Women in America, 1820-1870 [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978], p. 48).

  7. For example, Nancy F. Cott argues in The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman's Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), pp. 6 ff., that the 1830s “became a turning point in women's economic participation, public activities, and social visibility.” Stephanie Coontz points out in The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 1600-1900 (London: Verso, 1988), p. 34, that “about the 1820s a new family system emerged”; and Joe L. Dubbert notes in A Man's Place: Masculinity in Transition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979), p. 27, that “around 1830 the number of [guidebooks to male behavior] increased and their tone became more serious, especially in discussing sexual purity.” See also Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 199-201; Lystra, Searching the Heart, pp. 28-32; Stephen Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980), pp. 4, 25-29; and Rothman, Hands and Hearts, pp. 51, 91.

  8. Michael J. Colacurcio, The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).

  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” in Mosses from an Old Manse, vol. 10 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat et al. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974), p. 74. All further references are to this edition and are identified parenthetically.

  10. Levin and Colacurcio, in particular, have strengthened this sense by revealing the depth of Hawthorne's familiarity with Puritan sources. See also E. Arthur Robinson, “The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation,” American Literature 35 (May 1963): 218-25; B. Bernard Cohen, “Deodat Lawson's Christ's Fidelity and Hawthorne's ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Essex Institute Historical Collections 104 (1968): 349-70; James W. Clark, Jr., “Hawthorne's Use of Evidence in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’” Essex Institute Historical Collections 111 (1975): 12-34; and Robert C. Grayson, “Young Goodman Hawthorne,” American Notes and Queries 21 (March-April 1983); 103-6.

  11. John Demos, Past, Present and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 49.

  12. Nancy F. Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850,” in A Heritage of Her Own, ed. Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), pp. 162-81; Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America.

  13. Lois Banner, American Beauty (New York: Knopf, 1983), pp. 45, 46.

  14. Cooper, quoted by Banner, in American Beauty, p. 46.

  15. Banner, American Beauty, p. 53.

  16. John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 82-83.

  17. Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (1944; revised ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 166-68; Cott, “Passionlessness,” p. 167.

  18. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “Domesticating ‘Virtue’: Coquettes and Revolutionaries in Young America,” in Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons, ed. Elaine Scarry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 166.

  19. On woman's work as social reproduction, see Coontz, The Social Origins of Private Life.

  20. For a psychoanalytic reading of this opening passage as explicitly sexual, see Edward Jayne, “Pray Tarry with Me Young Goodman Brown,” Literature and Psychology 29 (1979): 103-4.

  21. See Lystra, Searching the Heart, pp. 57-58.

  22. Perhaps Brown's insistence that Faith and her ribbons remain inside the public/private threshold is related also to the taboo that menstruation has a chaotic effect on social behavior. One best-selling marriage manual of the 1830s declared that menstruating women were “‘out of order’” and should be kept at home (see Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy, quoted in Joel Pfister's The Production of Personal Life: Class, Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne's Fiction [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991], p. 35). In addition, the repetition of “of all nights in the year” suggests that this particular night is important to both of them. Perhaps her ribbons are a sign that she is ovulating. It was generally held prior to the twentieth century that when a woman was menstruating she was also ovulating (see Thomas Laqueur, “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” in The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987], p. 3). Hence, Faith's omnipresent pink ribbons and sexual desire may be signs of her wish to pull her husband through yet another threshold into the joys of parenthood.

  23. That many husbands, including Hawthorne, could, following the advice literature of the early decades of the nineteenth century, accept the moral superiority of their wives is clear from their letters and diaries. See Degler, At Odds, p. 30, and T. Walter Herbert, Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

  24. Herbert, Dearest Beloved, pp. 131-32; see also chaps. 8 and 10. In later decades, historian E. Anthony Rotundo proposes, a distinct “boy culture” grew up to counter the forces of “tender affection and moral suasion” each boy encountered when he crossed the threshold into his mother's home. This more “masculine” youth culture outside the home helped prepare boys for a manhood in which crossing the threshold between male and female worlds was more natural. In fact, some “of the most important lessons that a youngster learned from boy culture were those about living a life divided by a boundary between the two spheres.” But in the early decades, such acculturation was quite limited. E. Anthony Rotundo, “Boy Culture: Middle-Class Boyhood in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America, ed. Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 16, 29.

  25. Levin and Colacurcio read this story as, in part, concerned with the theological and epistemological problems the Puritans had with specter evidence, that Brown might mistake the specters in the forest for the people of the colony. Yet neither critic asks what specter evidence has to do with not recognizing that your companion is the “specter” of your father. Clearly the issue at this point in the story is not that Brown cannot tell a specter from a person or a saint from a sinner but that he does not recognize that someone looks like his father.

  26. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “Beauty, the Beast and the Militant Woman: A Case Study in Sex Roles and Social Stress in Jacksonian America,” American Quarterly 23 (1971): 575.

  27. We might see this taunt as well as the serpentine phallus as challenges to Brown's manhood. The devil-father offers the competition and possible humiliation that a nineteenth-century son might find outside the home. David Leverenz argues that “any intensified ideology of manhood is a compensatory response to fears of humiliation” and that throughout his career Hawthorne “dramatizes manhood as demonic possession, often explicitly.” But Leverenz virtually ignores “Young Goodman Brown,” preferring to focus for the most part on one or two late stories and the novels. Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 4, 239.

  28. On the possible sexual implications of Goody Cloyse being Brown's grandfather's gossip, see Daniel Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 163. For additional discussion of these sexually-laden paragraphs and the sexual aspects of the story, see Robinson, “The Vision of Goodman Brown,” pp. 221-24; Jayne, “Pray Tarry with Me Young Goodman Brown,” pp. 100-113; Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision, pp. 77-78; Crews, Sins of the Fathers, pp. 96-106; and Elizabeth Wright, “The New Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism: A Reading of Melville and Hawthorne,” Poetics Today 3 (Spring 1982): 89-105.

  29. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977).

  30. Gillian Brown, Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 63.

  31. That Brown is so confident that he is sin free leads to the possibility that he is pure of sexual “sin,” that he left his wife and came to the forest still a virgin. This idea has been suggested to me by Professor Elizabeth Jane Hinds. Such a possibility would make Faith's pleas at the beginning of the tale all the more poignant, Brown's focus on stains and bloodspots covering the earth that much more vivid and significant, and his return to the village and his future life as the father of “a goodly procession” of children all that more personally tragic.

  32. Nina Baym, “Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist,” in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Fritz Fleischmann (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), p. 62.

  33. Herbert, Dearest Beloved, and Gillian Brown, “Hawthorne, Inheritance, and Women's Property,” Studies in the Novel 23 (1991): 107-18.

  34. Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance; Pfister, The Production of Personal Life; and Richard H. Millington, Practicing Romance: Narrative Form and Cultural Engagement in Hawthorne's Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). For some explanation of Pfister's preference for the later Hawthorne, see Production of Personal Life, p. 43.

Debra Johanyak (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “Romanticism's Fallen Edens: The Malignant Contribution of Hawthorne's Literary Landscapes,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3, 1999, pp. 353-63.

[In the following essay, Johanyak explores Hawthorne's use of the forest in “Young Goodman Brown” and several of his other works, contending that Brown's sojourn in the forest serves to remind him that “we are everywhere surrounded by evil.”]

America's stern puritannical history provided nineteenth century writers with ideal plots and settings for the age-old conflict between good and evil. Edenic gardens and pastoral woodlands grace countless works of the Romantic era, wherein Adam- and Eve-like lovers succumb to temptation and find themselves not only cast out of their normative societies, but often torn from each other as well—whether spiritually, emotionally, or literally. Significantly, the forest settings of these tales contribute substantially and malignantly to the plot development of such stories.

None used the Edenic motif so pervasively as Nathaniel Hawthorne. His tales initially seem to draw our focus to a narrator who introduces characters and events. But Hawthorne's stories begin much earlier, in fact, commencing with landscape descriptions that set our goose bumps in motion. He accomplishes this in so artful a way that we are scarcely aware of it; hence we focus our mounting apprehension on a principal hero or heroine appearing signally in the narrative spotlight.

It is especially interesting that tales utilizing a contributory landscape are those emphasizing a Puritan backdrop against which a conflict-laced love story unfolds. Specifically, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and The Scarlet Letter are Hawthorne's strongest revivals of the Edenic legend featuring Puritan protagonists. And although the couples remain bonded, legally or emotionally, until death's separation tears them asunder, a shared moral flaw or spiritual weakness blocks their enjoyment of a true or joyous marriage.

“Young Goodman Brown” (1835) places the protagonist in a haunted forest representing the hero's troubled state of mind as he secretly hurries toward a midnight rendezvous. Leaving his wife secure, as he believes, in the heart of their Puritan community, Goodman Brown begins a journey at dusk toward a universal temptation which dooms his relationship to Faith—his literal wife and metaphorical spirituality—when he is forced to face the all-pervasive weak and sinful nature of humanity. The woodland path parallels his morally dangerous purpose and enhances the tone—and moral—of Hawthorne's plot:

He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.1

The separation at sundown of Brown from his wife suggests the divisive nature of his temptation. Brown wrongly assumes that his is an isolated, one-time distraction to be easily rectified by returning to the Puritan fold the next morning. As Brown commences traveling, Hawthorne likens his forest path to the spiritual journey of a man questioning his religious faith. Rather than adhering to the superficial community standards of his Puritan counterparts, Brown moves alone down the woodland route to consummate a deep, secret longing—one that he little expects is universally shared. Allegorically—like much of Hawthorne's writing—the road depicts Brown's journey to the depths of his own soul as he questions his personal human nature and, later, that of his wife and surrounding community. Hawthorne describes the woodland setting in terms corresponding to Goodman Brown's desperate self-search. The Puritan's eagerness to reach his midnight goal parallels a dwindling moral reserve as his hopes, like the gloomy woodland path, become increasingly narrow, twisted, and obscure.

The haunted forest frames young Brown's spiritual wanderings, suggesting that human sinfulness is inextricably bound to Nature.2 As the hero moves—at first hesitantly, but then quite purposefully—toward a seductive tryst in the heart of this wild woodland, it becomes apparent that he has exchanged his Puritan identity for pagan revelry. As Michael Bell notes, “[F]or Hawthorne nature itself is more a part of the European character than of the American. … ‘[N]ature’ and the Old World are both comprehended, for Hawthorne, in the notion of the pagan.”3 Prefiguring Hester Prynne's escape plan to flee America for the Old World with Dimmesdale, Goodman Brown attempts to renounce his Puritan community, his Puritan faith, and his Puritan wife, in order to pursue Old World temptations embodied in the dark, mysterious depths of Nature. The woodland path, growing “wilder and drearier and more faintly traced,” is enlivened by “frightful sounds” (62) which animate the otherwise-dead terrain, giving it human likeness. Into this eerie setting comes literal temptation, personified in an older gentleman who accompanies Brown through the wood where it is “deep dusk … and deepest in that part of it where these two were journeying” (55).

Thinking to escape his heritage, his marriage, and his humanity, Brown is instead lured along the forest path toward these restrictive elements in a shocking and irreparable recognition of all creation's spiritual degeneration. His bridegroom's love for wifely Faith is assaulted by her metaphorical adultery with the Satanic mass when she betrays both faith and husband by participating in the group's devil worship. As Brown plods along the dreary route, his darkening path finally disappears, symbolizing the youth's complete lapse into spiritual depravity.

The journey climaxes when Brown arrives at the ritual in progress deep in the “heathen wilderness” (61), grimly portrayed by Hawthorne's lurid descriptions of the forest clearing:

At one extremity of an open space, hemmed in by the dark wall of the forest, arose a rock, bearing some rude, natural resemblance either to an altar or a pulpit, and surrounded by four blazing pines, their tops aflame, their stems untouched, like candles at an evening meeting. The mass of foliage that had overgrown the summit of the rock was all on fire, blazing high into the night and fitfully illuminating the whole field. … As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.


This devilish scene is heightened by a worship hymn, “not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness pealing in awful harmony together” (63). Although the anguished husband cries out in despair, his voice blends in “unison with the cry of the desert” (63), and his unique lament of dissent is swallowed up by the encompassing evil about him, embodied as much in the wilderness setting as in the human celebrants. Eden's pathetic fallacy is inverted, like other biblical images, to conform to the Satan-worship of this story in honoring the “Prince of this World” and rejecting the heavenly Christ.

The climactical welcome chant to the lord of darkness is epitomized by cacophonic screams of “the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice of the unconcerted wilderness … mingling and according with the voice of guilty man in homage to the prince of all” (65). Fallen Eden offers a grotesque parody of creation praise, as nature's wildest voices join and overtake the Puritans' lewd celebration.

Surrounded by humanity's and nature's evil, Goodman Brown is nearly powerless to resist Satan's draw. Somehow he finds strength to glance heavenward and urges his wife to do likewise. Ultimately he saves himself, unassisted by Faith, who remains an allegorical symbol of failed religious hope.

Unsure of whether his life is now a dream or reality, Brown abruptly faces a desolate future

amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind which died heavily away through the forest. He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.


Despite his harrowing escape, Brown's familiar world is scarcely more welcoming than the evil one of the previous night. Nature now appears dispassionate at best. The fire's midnight blaze is replaced by dawn's clammy cold; the warmth of his bed and comfort of his hope are as lost as his religious and wifely Faith.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Young Goodman Brown's “dying hour was gloom” (68). The grave receives him devoid of “hopeful verse” (68), his happiness sacrificed in that one night's compromising journey. Although Hawthorne's young Puritan acknowledges his own and his wife's fleshly weaknesses, knowledge of the world's pervasive evil—represented in the personified forest—haunts him all his days. The woodland's midnight shades coupled with the town's gloomy daylight remind us that we are everywhere surrounded by evil; our only escape lies in this realization and in an attempt to find—and keep—a straight moral path. Hawthorne emphasizes in this tale, as in the others that follow, that the key to understanding and accepting humanity's natural depravity is a sense of balance between the values of head and heart;4 thus Brown's lifelong gloom is as unhealthy as the Puritans' hypocritical double standards. …

Hawthorne marries Puritan themes to forest settings in ways that are often ambivalent; sometimes Nature projects celebration and joy, while at other times it depicts the evil characteristics and threatening gestures of menacing invaders. But like no other romancer, Hawthorne uses the native American soil to tremendous advantage in enhancing scenes, moods, and characters in stories featuring Puritan-based plots and conflict-challenged romances.


  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” in The Portable Hawthorne, ed. Malcolm Crowley (New York: Penguin, 1948) 54. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Nancy Bunge, Nathanial Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1993) 13.

  3. Michael Davitt Bell, Hawthorn and the Historical Romance of New England (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971) 131.

  4. J. Golden Taylor, Hawthorne's Ambivalence Toward Puritanism (Logan: Utah State UP, 1965) 28.


Essays and Criticism


Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Short Story Criticism)