At a Glance
- "Young Goodman Brown" is a religious allegory that uncovers the weakness of Puritanism. Goodman Brown, a Salem resident, leaves his wife Faith one night to keep an appointment in the forest. Brown's meeting with the Devil is rich with symbolism, including the Devil's likeness to Brown's grandfather, his serpent-head staff, and the veil Faith wears during the Black Mass. Hawthorne's allegory suggests that religious faith is corruptible by nature.
- 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. Even Goody Cloyse, Brown's catechism teacher, contradicts the innate goodness implied by her name. These characters are allegorical figures representing all of humanity.
- Hawthorne uses a little narrative trickery at the end of the story to cast 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, if so, what does it say about him that he wants to believe terrible things about his loved ones? Hawthorne doesn't answer these questions, leaving the story open to interpretation.
Style and Technique
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.
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.
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...
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