Young Goodman Brown Analysis

  • Young Goodman Brown” is a religious allegory that uncovers the weakness of Puritanism and suggests that faith is corruptible.
  • Hawthorne gave his characters meaningful names. Goodman (“good man”) Brown is a once pious man whose faith disintegrates after a meeting with the devil. Faith, the embodiment of religious virtue, is revealed to be a sinner, making her name ironic.
  • Hawthorne casts some doubt on whether or not the Black Mass was real. Did it happen, and is everyone Brown knows a sinner? Or did Brown imagine it, and is he now projecting his own religious doubts onto those around him?

Style and Technique

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Hawthorne renders Brown’s deterioration plausible by a blend of means, one of them being his surprising ability to adapt to his purposes a fictional mode seemingly much better suited to the purposes of medieval and Renaissance authors than those of nineteenth-century novelists. Normally, allegory is sharp and clear as far as it goes, the limits of its applicability plain. Hawthorne’s story portrays the traditional Christian conviction that when a good man forsakes his faith, he is liable to hell. When the devil taxes Brown with being late for his appointment in the forest, his answer, “Faith kept me back a while,” is as purely allegorical as it can be.

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Hawthorne, however, goes on to complicate this idea. Not only are presumably pious people—guardians of the faith such as the minister and deacon—on the way to a satanic communion, but also the character who symbolizes faith. It may not be noticed at the beginning that Brown seems more protective of Faith than she of him. It may even pass unnoticed that Brown identifies Faith by her pink ribbon, a very fragile and decorative artifact for a character representing such a presumably powerful virtue. At the climax of the story, however, for the good man to counsel faith, rather than the opposite, is an incongruity that can hardly be missed. Then Hawthorne has them separated in a way that casts doubt on whether she, and indeed the whole diabolical crowd, were ever there. Brown was certainly there, but whether he has dreamed all or part of the night’s events cannot be determined conclusively. Finally, he is reunited with her again for the duration of his life, but unhappily, his only alternative to full-scale evil is a life of gloom and misanthropy. However, the story offers nothing more effective than faith to combat moral debasement.

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Latest answer posted February 8, 2012, 6:08 am (UTC)

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Unlike the authors of the medieval morality plays, Edmund Spenser, John Bunyan, and other moral allegorists, Hawthorne employed allegory not to demonstrate a moral proposition or the effects of accepting or rejecting the proposition but to establish a moral context in which good and evil deeds remain identifiable while their causes, effects, and interrelationships become mysterious and problematic. To abandon faith is still evil; to rejoin faith is not so obviously good. The sins remain the traditional ones: lust, murder, worshiping false gods. No one, however, seems to remember how to live cleanly and charitably.

Hawthorne accentuates the ambiguity of his allegory by frequent use of such expressions as “perhaps,” “as if,” “seemed,” “as it were,” “some affirm that,” and “he could have well-nigh sworn.” Thus hedged about, the full meaning of his story is as shadowy as his forest. In addition, he poses a number of unanswered and often unanswerable questions, such as whether Brown had somehow dreamed his lurid adventure.

Such techniques suggest that while Hawthorne delighted in posing moral questions and examining the moral content of human behavior, his main interest here, and in his fiction generally, was plumbing the psychology of the moral life. Looking back on the Calvinist heritage, he wrote of the pressures it exerted on the psyches of believers. He was no amateur theologian but rather an artist. He does not say what Young Goodman Brown should have done or indeed whether he could have done other than what he did; rather, the author portrays a condition that is felt to be intolerable and yet irremediable.

Themes and Meanings

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“Young Goodman Brown” is the classic American short story of the guilty conscience. The question Brown confronts is whether his heritage of original sin incapacitates him for resisting personal sin. In this profoundly ambiguous story, Brown wavers between the desperate cynicism of the corrupt soul and the hopefulness of the believer. At the beginning of the story, he has already made his bargain with the devil—hardly a token that he is among God’s elect but not necessarily a sign of damnation, either, if he can reject the consummation in the form of the perverted communion service in the woods. Whether by act of will or by divine grace, Brown appears to have resisted the power of evil at the climactic moment and given evidence of at least the possibility of salvation for his wife and himself.

However, if he has, what can be made of his life thereafter? All family and community relationships have been poisoned, and if he can be said to retain his faith, he appears to have lost hope completely. If the ability to resist the devil at his own table is victory, he has triumphed; if he has made the effort at the expense of his capability for human trust, he has met spiritual defeat. Hawthorne raises the question of whether Brown fell asleep in the forest and dreamed the witches’ sabbath. The reader, invited to ponder whether one dream could have such an intensive and extensive effect, may well proceed to wonder why Brown found it necessary to invade the forest at night merely to have a bad dream. If, on the other hand, any part of the forest encounter with the devil and witches is “real,” is Hawthorne to be regarded as a Manichaean who is demonstrating the power of evil?

“Young Goodman Brown” may also be read as a story concerned less with measuring the extent of evil in the world and assessing the moral prospects of the guilty than with studying the psychology of guilt. It may be doubted that Hawthorne would exercise his creative powers merely to affirm or quarrel with Calvinism, which had largely lost its grip on New Englanders’ allegiance by 1835, but he clearly retained a strong interest in the psychological atmosphere fostered by Calvinism. Dilemmas such as the opposition between divine foreordination and free will and that between God’s stern and irrevocable judgment and the possibility of his mercy and proffered grace continued to baffle conservative Christians in an era that offered a doctrinally less strenuous alternative such as Unitarianism. The old habits of mind had been challenged, but they were not dead.

Hawthorne’s insight into the stages of Brown’s guilt is acute. Part of Brown’s initial firmness in his resolve to go into the woods and in his confidence that his wife, by staying at home, saying her prayers, and going to bed early, will remain unharmed, is his sense of the uniqueness of his own daring. Departing from the ways of the pious and arranging an interview with the devil lends glamor to his quest. He imagines a “devilish Indian behind every tree” but cannot suppose any other Christian in these precincts. He exudes the confidence of a person who expects to retain control of the situation and pull back if he so decides. When he discovers that he is simply another sinner, simply another member of a corrupt race, he loses all dignity, all capacity for moral inquiry. Giving in to a mindless, emotional indulgence, he is later checked by the awesome finality of the Black Mass and acknowledges his insufficiency; then, for the first and only time in the story, he calls on God for assistance.

In this story and in such other fictions as “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Ethan Brand,” and The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne depicts the inner conflict resulting from a guilt that is suppressed, felt to be unshareable and unforgivable. Regardless of whether it is justified, Brown’s feeling of guilt is real, and to call his experience “only a dream” is to undervalue dreams, which, though read in vastly different ways over the centuries, have always been considered vitally significant by interpreters. Even if Brown is regarded as irrational, letting one night destroy his life, Hawthorne makes the reader feel such irrationality as a dreadful possibility.

Social Concerns / Themes

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Turning to the history of New England as he did for so many of his tales, Hawthorne centers his attention in this tale on the effects of the rigid Puritan theocracy on a young man who has begun to doubt the goodness of those around him. Drawing on the history of his ancestors, the writer creates a story which is a subtle inversion of a traditional New England Puritan theme: the errand into the wilderness. The men and women who fled religious persecution and settled the rocky area north of the Long Island Sound and along the Atlantic coast saw themselves as bringing God’s word to the “savages” of the New World and establishing a society of the elect. Both communally and individually, they entered into a covenant with their Maker: on their side, they would abide by the strict commandments outlined in the Bible, and in return God would grant them eternal salvation.

Goodman Brown’s quest into the wilderness is a journey to test this doctrine. Besieged with doubt about the holiness of those around him—and perhaps doubting the depth of his own commitment to goodness as well—he seeks to get behind the public masks of his fellow citizens to see if they are really as devoted to God as they profess. Hawthorne’s hero discovers what he most fears: that evil lies in the hearts of all whom he has trusted, even his most beloved wife. The writer’s position is not that of his protagonist, however: throughout the tale, Hawthorne provides subtle clues that Goodman Brown sees what he wishes and that he ascribes motives without sufficient proof—a form of arrogance against which Hawthorne rails in a number of his works.

Historical Context

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Lingering Puritan Influences in Nineteenth-Century New England

Although the Salem Witch Trials had unfolded more than one hundred years prior, nineteenth-century New England was still reeling from inherited guilt, even as it rebelled against the constrictive morals of its forebears, the Puritans. It was into this Salem, Massachusetts, society that Hawthorne was born in 1804. Despite the fact he listed Unitarian as his official religion, his roots and sensibilities were unmistakably Puritan.

Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather William Hathorne (Nathaniel added the W to the family name when he began signing his published works) was the first family member to emigrate from England. He once ordered the public whipping of a Quaker woman who refused to renounce her religious beliefs. Following in the footsteps of his father, William’s son, John, presided over the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne claims he was frequently haunted by these unholy ghosts from his past. Hawthorne’s heritage was not the sole influence on his development, however; the social tenets of his contemporary society also played a key role.

Nineteenth-century English traveler Thomas Hamilton once described the descendants of New England’s first colonists as “cold, shrewd, calculating and ingenious” and asserted that “a New Englander is far more a being of reason than of impulse.” Hawthorne applied these traits and values—which he struggled to accept within himself—to his characters, including the title character in “Young Goodman Brown.” According to Hyatt H. Waggoner in his book Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne “continued to note in himself, and to disapprove, feelings and attitudes he projected in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’ He noted his tendency not only to study others with cool objectivity, but to study himself with almost obsessive interest.” The same Puritan values that inspired Hawthorne’s objective observation of people and events contributed to his growth and genius as a writer.

At least one other classically Puritan trait emerges in Hawthorne’s writings: a keen interest in the welfare of the community. With its emphasis on brotherhood and the perils of alienation, “Young Goodman Brown” is a good example of a Puritan society. “Salem was a part of him,” Waggoner concluded, “for good and ill.”

The Industrial Revolution and the Publishing Business

Printed communication increased by leaps and bounds in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of new technology. Publishers enlarged their size and scope under the pressure of competition, and new agencies of delivery—including the ocean steamship and the railroad—increased the speed and efficiency of publishing. Improved presses sped up the rate of printing twenty-fold between 1830 and 1850. This trend contributed to Hawthorne’s public reputation and income as many of his earlier short stories and essays found their way into print via a newsman’s press.

The literary output of New England writers between 1830 and 1850 was not only noteworthy for its volume but also because it reflected the qualities of the region, new contacts with European culture, and the spirit of Jacksonian democracy. The works of many writers of this period—including Oliver Wendell Holmes Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe—are still widely read today. According to Frederick Jackson Turner in his book The United States, 1830–1850: The Nation and Its Sections, however, Hawthorne was “the greatest of the New England novelists” and exhibited “a power of psychological analysis and literary skill that have not since been equaled by any American writer.”

Literary Style

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“Young Goodman Brown” tells the tale of a young Puritan man drawn into a covenant with the devil, which he adamantly tries to resist. His illusions about the goodness of society are crushed when he discovers that many of his fellow townspeople, including religious leaders and his wife, are attending the same Black Mass.

Allegory

"Young Goodman Brown" takes the form of an allegory. An allegory uses symbolic elements to represent various human characteristics and situations. Brown represents Everyman (“Goodman” was a title for those under the social rank of “gentleman”), while Faith represents his faith in humanity and society. In leaving his wife, Brown forsakes his belief in the godliness of humanity. He immediately enters a wood “lonely as could be” that is enshrouded in a “deep dusk.” These woods are the physical location in which Brown explores his doubts and opposing desires and as such represent his personal hell. When he tells his companion “Faith kept me back awhile,” it is clear that he feels ambivalent about forging a pact with the devil. Yet, while Brown pledges to return to Faith several times, he continues his dark journey. Although Brown eventually leaves the physical location of the woods, mentally he stays there for the rest of his life.

Symbolism

Examples of symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown” include the pink hair ribbons, which represent Faith’s innocence, and the snake-like staff, which is symbolic of the form the devil takes to corrupt Adam and Eve in the Bible. Another symbol emphasizes a reaction instead of an object. The example unfolds partway through Brown’s journey into the woods, immediately after he recognizes the voices of the deacon and the minister. The narrator relates that “Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart.” This action symbolizes Brown’s wavering faith and his growing realization that he is losing his basis of moral support.

Point of View

Throughout “Young Goodman Brown,” point of view swings subtly between the narrator and the title character. As a result, readers are privy to Goodman Brown’s deepest, darkest thoughts while also receiving an objective view of his behavior. Early in the story readers learn from Brown himself that he expects his journey to be a one-time event: “Well, [Faith is] a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night l’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.” In contrast, readers get an intriguing perspective on Brown’s mad dash to the devil’s altar from the objective narrator: “The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds. . . . But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.” By the end of the story, the narrator supplies the only point of view; Brown’s voice is conspicuously absent. This shift symbolizes the loss of Brown’s faith.

Foreshadowing

Hawthorne uses foreshadowing to build suspense and offer clues as to the story’s direction. As Brown leaves for his mysterious journey, Faith voices her doubts: “Prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed tonight. A lone woman is troubled with dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeared of herself sometimes.” This statement predicts Faith’s betrayal and her appearance at the Black Mass. Brown offers a second example of foreshadowing during a brief monologue: “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 tonight. But no, no; ’t would kill her to think it.” Here Hawthorne hints both at Brown’s later confusion over whether he had dreamed his experience and the symbolic death of Faith’s innocence at the Black Mass.

Romanticism

Romanticism was a literary movement originating in the eighteenth century that emphasized imagination and emotion, yet it was also marked by sensibility and autobiographical elements. According to Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, Romanticists held that absolute principles lead to personal failure. Based on the destiny of the title character, it is clear Hawthorne subscribes to this theory as well. Unable to accept the duality of human nature—that good and evil can and often do exist side by side—Goodman Brown lives out the rest of his days as “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.”

Other examples of the Romanticist at work include an underlying message in “Young Goodman Brown” that urges readers to examine the effect their behavior has on others and to change accordingly. This message illustrates the Romanticist conviction that human nature can change for the better.

Literary Techniques

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More than in most of his fiction, “Young Goodman Brown” reflects Hawthorne’s fascination with the literary technique of allegory. Used commonly in literature since classical times, and popularized in the Middle Ages by theological scholars and writers alike, allegory is a technique in which characters are often personifications of abstract qualities. Hence, it is possible to identify individual characters in the story directly with moral ideas or concepts. The allegory is quite pronounced in “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne has even provided direct links through the characters’ names. For example, on the literal level, “Goodman” is simply a common appellation for a young man living in seventeenth-century colonial America; his last name, Brown, is one common among New Englanders, and his wife also bears a common first name in a community where religious observance is important. On an abstract level, however, Hawthorne’s protagonist is a representative of the “good man” who abandons his “faith” to commune with the devil. Other characters, while not identified so directly by their names, also bear qualities of abstraction which permit them to be seen as types of New Englanders.

Hawthorne goes even further in emphasizing the universal moral dimensions of the story by his use of setting, where light and darkness carry with them traditional symbolic connotations of good and evil. So careful is the author in his detail that even Faith’s ribbons are suggestive: pink blends the color of innocence (white) with that of sinfulness (red, traditionally associated with the devil).

Compare and Contrast

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1692: The Salem witch trials result in the hanging deaths of nineteen people accused of being witches.

1835: Hawthorne, a descendant of one of the judges who presided over the witch trials, publishes “Young Goodman Brown.” The allegorical tale explores the society and the mindset that spawned the trials.

1996: Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is adapted for film. In 1953 Miller’s play used the Salem witch trials as an allegory to condemn the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

1690: The first newspaper in British North America, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, is established. The Governor of Massachusetts scuttles the paper before the end of the year.

1835: James Gordon Bennett opens the New York Herald. Six years later, the New York Tribune is founded. These papers, which cost one penny, are meant to reach the multitudes and be nonpartisan.

1997: USA Today is the nation’s leading newspaper, based on circulation figures. Founded in 1982, it is the first paper to be published at several printing plants throughout the nation simultaneously.

1600s: The Native American population numbers an estimated six to nine million.

1800s: The Native American population numbers less than three million.

1997: The Native American population (now including Inuit and Aleut ethnicities) has recently risen to just over two million.

Literary Precedents

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As an allegory, “Young Goodman Brown” is part of a tradition which dates to antiquity. Most notably, the story shares affinities with works such as Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1320) and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Part I, 1678; Part II, 1684), both of which describe the journey of a good man on a pilgrimage to heaven. Unlike the heroes of these works, however, Goodman Brown succumbs to temptation and does not achieve either peace on earth or a place in heaven. Like most of Hawthorne’s work, this story displays several characteristics of gothic fiction.

Media Adaptations

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In 1968, Edward J. Megroth adapted Young Goodman Brown as an opera, with music by Harold Fink.

Young Goodman Brown was adapted as a motion picture by Pyramid Films in 1972. This thirty-minute film won a special jury award at the Atlanta International Film Festival.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Fogle, Richard H. “Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ ” in New England Quarterly, December, 1945.

Levin, David in American Literature, November, 1962.

Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales, edited by James Mclntosh, W. W. Norton, 1987, pp. 337–350.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Tale-Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales, edited by James Mclntosh, W. W. Norton, 1987.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The United States, 1830–1850: The Nation and Its Sections, Peter Smith, 1958.

Waggoner, Hyatt H. Nathaniel Hawthorne, University of Minnesota Press, 1962, p. 48

Further Reading

Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ ” in Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 115–26.

Levy discusses some of the critical interpretations of “Young Goodman Brown” and provides his own reading of the story, focusing on the character of Faith.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, G. K. Hall & Co., 1979.

Newman covers all of Hawthorne’s stories, presenting publication history, circumstances of composition, sources, influences, relationships with other Hawthorne works, and interpretations and criticisms.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. “ ‘Young Goodman Brown’ as Historical Allegory,” in Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal, 1973, pp. 183–97.

St. Armand presents a discussion of “Young Goodman Brown” as allegory and provides references to the Puritan background of the story’s setting.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Millington, Richard H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Muirhead, Kimberly Free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: A Critical Resource Guide and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Literary Criticism, 1950-2000. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Stoehr, Taylor. Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978.

Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

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