Last Updated September 6, 2023.
“Young Goodman Brown” was first published in the April 1835 issue of the New-England Magazine, a short-lived periodical which also included the work of Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow over its four-year run. The thirty-year-old Hawthorne did not believe the story had much impact on the reading public, and it was not among those reprinted in Twice-Told Tales, the author’s first collection, which appeared in 1837. However, “Young Goodman Brown” has since come to be regarded as one of Hawthorne’s most important and profound works by critics and writers as disparate in time and style as Herman Melville and Stephen King.
Romanticism in German and English literature was primarily a poetic movement and often centered on the expression of joy and the sublime. American Romanticism had a much darker, more brooding tone, which found expression in the prose works of Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s omniscient narrators, in such stories as “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Young Goodman Brown,” may not have the terrifying immediacy of Poe’s deranged first-person storytellers, but the vision of life they convey to the reader is even bleaker. Poe’s protagonists can be written off as solitary lunatics, whereas Hawthorne presents the reader with his vision of an irredeemably sinful and corrupt world, in which men grow sadder, but no wiser, as they age and in which the appearance of virtue or wisdom is always deceptive.
Young Goodman Brown is an Everyman figure, though, unlike Everyman, there is no sign that he will ascend into heaven. However, Hawthorne is careful not to send him to hell either, since he clearly shows that the hell people create for themselves on earth is more than sufficient punishment for their sins. The name “Goodman” means little more than “Mister” in a Puritan context. The “very pious and exemplary dame” who taught young Goodman Brown his catechism is known as Goody Cloyse, an abbreviation of “Goodwife,” the feminine equivalent. However, there is also profound irony in the title “Goodman,” since the bearer ought to be better than a mere neutral Everyman. Goodman Brown’s journey, however, is in precisely the opposite direction from that of Everyman, as he begins in hope and innocence and ends in despair and bitterness. In this, he is as different from the spirit of the English Romantics—Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats—as he is from the medieval Everyman with his hopes of salvation.
Young Goodman Brown goes on a circular journey, returning to Salem village after his ordeal with his outlook on life fundamentally altered. In this he resembles the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the darker works of English Romanticism. The Mariner himself seems to draw a redemptive message from his suffering, but the Wedding Guest at the end of the poem may well remind the reader of Goodman Brown’s bewilderment and disillusion as he returns to Salem village:
He went like one that hath been stunned,And is of sense forlorn:A sadder and a wiser man,He rose the morrow morn.
The Wedding Guest is stunned, forlorn, and sad, like Goodman Brown, but he is at least wiser. The truly subversive element in Hawthorne, which is never clearer than in “Young Goodman Brown,” is the idea that human beings never attain wisdom. They suffer, but they do not grow through suffering. Even the devil himself, as a fallen angel, has more wisdom than Goodman Brown. In his sadness there is some trace of nobility, “as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable...
(This entire section contains 815 words.)
Hawthorne is careful to exclude any suggestion of such nobility—or of wisdom, tolerance, acceptance, or forgiveness—from the old age of Goodman Brown. He loses his innocence and gains nothing in return. This is why the story is not a tragedy: Goodman Brown lacks the dignity of a tragic hero. He is diminished by his suffering and knowledge, rather than achieving anything that approaches the heroic stature of an Oedipus or a Hamlet. In this atmosphere of gloom, where human misery has no grandeur but is reduced to spite and querulousness, Hawthorne seems ahead of his time. He does not resemble the Romantics but rather anticipates the nihilism of the Victorian and Edwardian poets: Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, and Thomas Hardy. Perhaps the most striking resemblance is to James Thomson, who wrote in “The City of Dreadful Night” of a worldview very similar to that with which old Goodman Brown lives out his joyless life:
To sense that every struggle brings defeatBecause Fate holds no prize to crown success;That all the oracles are dumb or cheatBecause they have no secret to express;That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertainBecause there is no light beyond the curtain;That all is vanity and nothingness.