"Young Goodman Brown" Nathaniel Hawthorne
The following entry presents criticism of Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," first published in the April 1835 issue of New England Magazine. See also "The Minister's Black Veil" Criticism.
"Young Goodman Brown" is widely regarded as one of Hawthorne's finest works. Drawing on Puritan theology and traditions of witchcraft, Hawthorne crafted a profound and complex work which has fascinated generations of readers with its portrayal of a self-deluded sinner and its ambiguous conclusion. It is typical of Hawthorne's fiction in its use of historical material, its allegorical mode, and its somber view of human nature. "Young Goodman Brown" is also important in the development of Hawthorne's fiction writing, for it prefigures many of the thematic concerns that are at the center of his novels, such as human depravity, religious doubt, secret guilt, and spiritual isolation. Critics note that this tale is integral to an understanding of Hawthorne's artistry, in that it displays the careful workmanship, rhetorical balance of style, clear narrative technique, and ambiguity of meaning which distinguish his best fiction. Although an early tale, "Young Goodman Brown" reveals the mastery which has led scholars to describe Hawthorne as one of America's most prominent and influential short fiction writers.
Plot and Major CharactersSet in seventeenth-century Salem, "Young Goodman Brown" tells the story of a naive and recently married Puritan who leaves behind his anxious wife, Faith, for a mysterious errand in the primeval forest. In a dreamlike sequence, Goodman Brown keeps an assignation with the devil, sees the shadowy figures of the colony's civil and religious leaders, and hears indistinctly the sorrowful voice of his wife. Maddened with despair at what he believes to be his wife's involvement with the devil, Brown tears through the forest and comes upon a witches' Sabbath where he finds commingled Salem's most revered saints, its most dissolute sinners, and his own wife. In this chaotic and lawless setting, the antithesis of the orderly world of daylight Salem, Goodman Brown recognizes within himself a dark propensity for evil. Urged by the devil to join the ungodly congregation, Brown at the last moment cries out to Faith to "resist the wicked one," and then finds himself alone in the cold night. At daybreak he returns to Salem a greatly changed man, convinced of the evil of others and of his own virtue for having resisted temptation. But this new understanding of his wife and neighbors only embitters him, and he spends his days as a grim misanthrope. In the final paragraph, the narrator remarks that when Goodman Brown died, "they carved no hopeful verse on his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom."
Hawthorne's contemporaries and modern critics have disagreed over the theme of "Young Goodman Brown" and what moral readers are to draw from their reading of the tale. Many have commented on Hawthorne's explorations of human psychology, particularly Brown's obsession with sin and guilt. According to these critics, Brown's inability to recognize his own participation in evil attests to his emotional immaturity, revealing as it does his severely limited view of human nature; even after his forest experience, he continues to deny the human potential for both good and evil. Others have focused on the sexual overtones of the story, and they interpret Brown's discovery of evil in the forest scene as his recognition and rejection of his own sexual nature. These critics point to the many sexual symbols in the tale, and they discuss the sexual implications of the devil's invitation to Brown to learn the deep mysteries of sin. Although he escapes the devil's snare and returns to Faith, with whom he begets several children, he is profoundly repulsed by his knowledge of sexual guilt; hence, he is unable to forgive Faith or the Salem villagers, whom he believes are debauched by their carnal...
(The entire section is 68,709 words.)