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

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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 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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Lingering Puritan Influences in Nineteenth-Century New England
Although the Salem Witch Trials had unfolded more than...

(The entire section is 557 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

''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...

(The entire section is 780 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

More than in most of his fiction, "Young Goodman Brown" reflects Hawthorne's fascination with the literary technique of allegory. Used...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Hawthorne is a master of allegory and symbolism, and as a result his works are fertile ground for discussion of moral and social issues....

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

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

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

What does Goodman Brown mean when he says, "Faith kept me back a while," after the Devil comments on his lack of punctuality?


(The entire section is 113 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As an allegory, "Young Goodman Brown" is part of a tradition which dates to antiquity. Most notably, the story shares affinities with works...

(The entire section is 91 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Parallels can be found between this story and numerous others in the Hawthorne canon. The most striking similarities exist between the...

(The entire section is 73 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

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

Young Goodman Brown...

(The entire section is 43 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece The Scarlet Letter (1850), centers on Hester Prynne, a young woman who...

(The entire section is 274 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Fogle, Richard H. "Ambiguity and Clarity in Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'," in New England...

(The entire section is 213 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.