"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 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.
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.