Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Short Story Criticism) - Essay

Nathaniel Hawthorne


(Short Story Criticism)

"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 Characters

Set 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."

Major Themes

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 appetites. Another group of critics have discussed "Young Goodman Brown" as a religious allegory, noting the paramount importance of Faith to Hawthorne's tale. In this reading, Brown's rejection of Faith—both his wife and his spiritual beliefs—and his subsequent fall into misanthropy reveals Hawthorne's sharp indictment of Calvinist theology. Brown, convinced that he is one of the Elect and thereby assured of salvation, discovers through his night journey the full import of Calvinist doctrine: man's natural condition is depravity, and thus all mankind deserves eternal damnation. Although critics continue to differ in their interpretation of the story's meaning, they concur that Brown's chief sins are his failure to understand the complexities of human nature and his lack of compassion for his fellow sinners.

Critical Reception

The vast number of studies (over 400) devoted to this one story attests to its popularity, but Hawthorne was himself uncertain how his tale would be received. Consequently, he passed over the tale twice when making selections for the 1837 and 1842 editions of Twice-Told Tales, although he did publish it in the relatively obscure New England Magazine in 1835. It was not until nearly twenty years after he wrote the story that he sought a wide readership for this story when he included it in Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. Hawthorne's contemporaries gave the story a mixed reception; the majority of preferred the fanciful and lighter sketches in Mosses from an Old Manse and largely neglected the allegorical tales which Hawthorne's modern readers admire. Edgar Allan Poe, who had applauded the genius of Twice-Told Tales, deplored Hawthorne's reliance upon the allegorical mode in the later collection. Herman Melville, on the other hand, described "Young Goodman Brown" as a marvel, "deep as Dante." Modern criticism of the story has taken three principal directions and has varied in its response to the question of whether Goodman Brown's journey into the forest was an actual occurrence, a dream, or a Satanic trick. Early twentieth-century readers emphasized Hawthorne's treatment of the Puritan doctrines of sin and salvation, Hawthorne's obsession with evil, and the theme of sin and its blighting consequences. A second trend in interpretation of the story focused on its psychosexual elements, variously describing Brown as an Oedipal figure and Faith as representative of the ambiguity of womanhood. More recently, critics have explored Hawthorne's use of historical materials. In particular, scholars have examined Hawthorne's knowledge of and access to late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Puritan documents about theology, political history, and witchcraft. The most recent historical criticism of the story has noted that Hawthorne made use of details of the Puritan experience and incorporated nineteenth-century views of gender relations as a way to examine his own culture's anxieties over theological, sexual, and moral issues. Despite these conflicting interpretations, scholars agree that "Young Goodman Brown" represents a significant achievement in Hawthorne's oeuvre and in the development of the American short story. With rare exception, critics have praised Hawthorne's mastery in exploiting his historical sources for their symbolic, psychological, and mythical possibilities. Critics continue to study "Young Goodman Brown" for its originality, its sophisticated narrative structure, its insight into the American experience, and its authentic exploration of humanity's moral condition.

D. M. McKeithan (essay date 1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, February, 1952, pp. 93-6.

[In the following essay, McKeithan observes that Hawthorne is more concerned with the demoralizing consequences of sin than with sin itself]

The majority of Hawthorne critics feel that "Young Goodman Brown" is one of the very best of Hawthorne's tales, but there is somewhat less certainty as to its meaning. The theme of the story has been variously stated as the reality of sin, the pervasiveness of evil, the secret sin and hypocrisy of all persons, the hypocrisy of Puritanism, the results of doubt or disbelief, the devastating effects...

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Thomas E. Connolly (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism," in American Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, November, 1956, pp. 370-75.

[In the essay below, Connolly argues that Goodman Brown learns through his experiences that Calvinism is a faith which condemns its followers to eternal damnation.]

It is surprising, in a way, to discover how few of the many critics who have discussed "Young Goodman Brown" agree on any aspect of the work except that it is an excellent short story. D. M. McKeithan [in "Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown: An Interpretation," in Modern Language Notes LXVII, No. 94, February 1952] says that its theme is "sin and its...

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Thomas F. Walsh, Jr. (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bedeviling of Young Goodman Brown," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1958, pp. 331-36.

[In this essay, Walsh discusses the threefold symbolic pattern of Goodman Brown's experience in the forest which results in his surrender to despair.]

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

The above question, found in the second to the last paragraph of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous short story, "Young Goodman Brown," has perhaps inspired more comment than any other sentence of the author's works. But it is futile to attempt to answer...

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Paul W. Miller (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Cynicism or Meliorism?" in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, December, 1959, pp. 255-64.

[In the following essay, Miller contends that Goodman Brown is not meant to be representative of all humanity, and therefore Hawthorne's story is not as pessimistic as is commonly perceived.]

Critics have agreed that Young Goodman Brown, in the course of the Hawthorne story of the same name, moves from a state of simple faith in God and his fellow man to an evil state involving damnation, or at least soul jeopardy. They have also generally implied that as well as being an individual, Young Goodman Brown is in some sense intended...

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David Levin (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shadows of Doubt: Specter Evidence in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, November, 1962, pp. 344-52.

[In this essay, Levin examines Hawthorne's short story from a seventeenth-century perspective and notes that Goodman Brown succumbs to despair on only spectral evidence of evil.]

I choose for my text two statements written in the autumn of 1692, after twenty Massachusetts men and women accused of witchcraft had been executed. The first is by Increase Mather, the second by Thomas Brattle.

. . . the Father of Lies [Mather declared] is never to be believed: He will utter twenty great...

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E. Arthur Robinson (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation," in American Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, May, 1963, pp. 218-25.

[In the following essay, Robinson posits that it is Goodman Brown's marital experience that has opened his eyes to the existence of evil]

Students of "Young Goodman Brown" agree in general that its main materials are drawn from Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World, published the year following the Salem witchcraft trials, in which Mather describes the devil's appearing as a "small black man" to lure people to forest rendezvous where church sacraments were imitated and mocked. Hawthorne, indeed, virtually quotes Mather...

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Paul J. Hurley (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Young Goodman Brown's 'Heart of Darkness'," in American Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, January, 1966, pp. 410-19.

[In this essay, Hurley discusses Goodman Brown's forest encounter with the Devil as the product of his diseased mind. ]

The critical controversy which has centered on Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" seems to have reached an impasse. Critics have usually seen the story as an allegory embodying Hawthorne's suspicions about man's depravity. This interpretation implies that the Devil's words to Goodman Brown—"Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness."—echo Hawthorne's own attitude. R. H. Fogle, for instance, writes [in...

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Richard Abcarian (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ending of 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 343-45.

[In the following essay, Abcarian contradicts previous critics who state that the ending of Hawthorne's tale is anticlimactic and redundant]

"Young Goodman Brown" is certainly one of Hawthorne's greatest stories and arguably one of the finest short stories ever written. With the economy of genius, Hawthorne dramatizes the discovery by a young and good man "that all deified Nature absolutely paints like a harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnelhouse within . . ." [Herman Melville, Moby Dick] and the consequences of that discovery....

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J. M. Ferguson, Jr. (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Explicator, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1969, item 32.

[In this essay, Ferguson points out the importance of color symbolism as it pertains to Faith's pink ribbons in "Young Goodman Brown."]

Much concern has been expressed about the significance of Faith's pink ribbons in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," and this commentary has perhaps been initiated in part by F. O. Matthiessen's observation that the author's "literal insistence" on them, as they first appear to Goodman Brown in the forest, damages the effect of what is otherwise portrayed as "the realm of hallucination" (American Renaissance, New York,...

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Walter J. Paulits (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ambivalence in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in American Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 577-84.

[In the following essay, Paulits characterizes Hawthorne's tale as one in which the dominant theme is the ambivalence of the human heart when presented with a choice between good and evil.]

My hope in this article is that a discussion of ambivalence and of its concomitants of temptation and deception may provide the still-missing clue to the interpretation of the intent of "Young Goodman Brown." I am distinguishing sharply between ambiguity and ambivalence. Ambiguity is concerned with intermingled meanings—the double meanings in the witches' prophecies...

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Wayne Dickson (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Explicator, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, January, 1971, item 44.

[In the following, Dickson notes that Goodman Brown lacks charity, the greatest of the Christian virtues.]

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is the story of a youth's initiation into the knowledge of the universality of the evil in man's heart. The story is ambiguous on the question of whether this newfound knowledge is trustworthy or illusory, though it is perhaps significant that the only guarantor of the authenticity of Brown's experience is the Devil, himself the father of deception. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of Brown's psychology, the...

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John B. Humma (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: " 'Young Goodman Brown' and the Failure of Hawthorne's Ambiguity," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 8, December, 1971, pp. 425-31.

[In this essay, Humma argues that the ambiguous ending of "Young Goodman Brown" reveals Hawthorne's artistic failure rather than his triumph.]

Most critics of "Young Goodman Brown" consider it one of Hawthorne's finest short stories. Richard H. Fogle, for instance, says [in Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952] that in "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne has achieved that "reconciliation of opposites which Coleridge deemed the highest art." Daniel Hoffman [in Form and Fable in American Literature,...

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Robert E. Morsberger (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: 'The Woe That Is Madness: Goodman Brown and the Face of the Fire," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1973, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1973, pp. 177-82.

[In the following essay, Morsberger contends that Goodman Brown's loss of faith in others reflects the beginnings of American political and social paranoia.]

Hawthorne, if any one, was equipped to write the definitive novel on the Salem witchcraft delusion; but he never confronted it head on. "Alice Doane's Appeal" conjures up the victims from the graveyard, Grandfather's Chair and "Main Street" give the barest bones of a synopsis, "Sir William Phips" merely hints at it,...

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Barton Levi St. Armand (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Young Goodman Brown' as Historical Allegory," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1973, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1973, pp. 183-97.

[In the essay below, St. Armand analyzes Hawthorne's short story as "an historical parable, pure and simple."]

In his 1964 Centenary essay, "On Hawthorne" [included in Beyond Culture, 1965], Lionel Trilling declared that:

. . . in the degree that he does not dominate us, Hawthorne cannot wholly gratify us, moderns that we are. He is an exquisite artist, yet he suggests to us the limitations of art, and thus points to the stubborn core of actuality that...

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Claudia G. Johnson (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Young Goodman Brown and Puritan Justification," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 200-03.

[In this essay, Johnson examines "Young Goodman Brown" in terms of the Puritan doctrine of justification, in which "God might open the hearts of certain men, allowing them to descend within in order to know themselves."]

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...

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Edward J. Gallagher (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Concluding Paragraph of 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 29-30.

[In the essay below, Gallagher illustrates how the conclusion successfully completes the circular plot of "Young Goodman Brown."]

In the concluding paragraph of "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne uses the forest experience to its fullest effect, moving Brown through another series of separations to the ultimate separation, from life itself. To some critics, in fact, the concluding paragraph itself has seemed a separation, breaking the neat circularity of Hawthorne's plot, moving in linear fashion through time from Brown's figurative death at...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Sheldon W. Liebman (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Reader in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1975, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1975, pp. 156-69.

[In this essay, Liebman argues that Hawthorne's concern in "Young Goodman Brown" is to challenge the reader's own morality and to force the reader to choose between conflicting possibilities of meaning. ]

Like "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and "The Maypole of Merry Mount," "Young Goodman Brown" begins at dusk, and the journey on which its hero embarks is ventured among diminishing lights and growing shadows which signify a world of moral uncertainty and announce the coming of a moral crisis. In "the heart...

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Patricia Ann Carlson (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Setting and Fictional Dynamics," in Hawthorne's Functional Settings: A Study of Artistic Method, Editions Rodopi, 1977, pp. 128-31.

[In the essay below, Carlson discusses how Hawthorne inverts the symbolic significance of the forest and village settings to initiate the breakdown of Goodman Brown's simplistic understanding of good and evil.]

The most obvious ambiguity in "Young Goodman Brown" (New England Magazine, April, 1835) falls under H.-J. Lang's third classification, . . . the ambiguity of external actions. Was Brown's experience in the forest real, or was it a dream? Certainly, a strong case for this ambiguity could be culled from the...

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Terence J. Matheson (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Young Goodman Brown': Hawthorne's Condemnation of Conformity," in The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal 1978, edited by C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Gale Research Company, 1984, pp. 137-45.

[In this essay, Matheson asserts that Goodman Brown's resistance to the Devil is based solely on his desire to conform to approved social practices and protect his public image.]

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...

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Norman H. Hostetler (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narrative Structure and Theme in 'Young Goodman Brown'," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 221-28.

[In the following essay, Hostetler investigates how conflict between the points of view of the title character and the narrator of "Young Goodman Brown" creates an ironic tension from which Hawthorne "develops his criticism of Brown's lack of awareness of the controlling power of the mind."]

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...

(The entire section is 3047 words.)

Terence Martin (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Six Tales: 'Young Goodman Brown'," in Nathaniel Hawthorne, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 81-7.

[In the following excerpt, Martin focuses on Goodman Brown's incomplete but cataclysmic initiation into evil]

To judge from the title, wrote Herman Melville in his review of Mosses from an Old Manse, one would suppose that "Young Goodman Brown" was "a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to 'Goody Two-Shoes.' Whereas it is as deep as Dante." Readers since Melville's time have agreed that "Young Goodman Brown" is one of Hawthorne's most profound tales. In the manner of its concern with guilt and evil, it exemplifies what Melville called...

(The entire section is 2850 words.)

Sam B. Girgus (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Law of the Fathers: Hawthorne," in Desire and the Political Unconscious in American Literature: Eros and Ideology, St. Martin's Press, 1990, pp. 49-78.

[In the excerpt below, Girgus offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Goodman Brown as a tormented neurotic who represses both his sexual desire for Faith and his doubts about his parentage.]

On a relatively conventional level of Freudian analysis, Young Goodman Brown would appear to be an unhappy neurotic who cannot reconcile himself to his wife's carnality and cannot return or enjoy the love she represents. He cannot appreciate her natural desires: ' "Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather...

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James C. Keil (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown': Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, March, 1996, pp. 33-55.

[In this essay, Keil examines "Young Goodman Brown" in terms of nineteenth-century views concerning masculinity and femininity.]

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, but since the opening years of the 1950s, a second category of readings has emphasized the psychosexual elements. Roy Male, for example, argued [in Hawthorne's...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Stanton, Robert J. "Secondary Studies on Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown,' 1845-1975: A Bibliography." Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes XXXIII, No. 1 (1976): 32-52.

Describes over 400 studies on Hawthorne's short story.


Abel, Darreil. "Metonymic Symbols: Black Glove and Pink Ribbon." In The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne's Fiction, pp. 125-41. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1988.

An examination of the central structural symbols of "Young Goodman Brown."


(The entire section is 917 words.)