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The presentation of evil in "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Summary:

In "Young Goodman Brown," evil is presented through the protagonist's journey into the forest, where he encounters symbols of sin and corruption. The story explores the theme of inherent wickedness in humanity, as Goodman Brown realizes that those he once viewed as pious are deeply flawed. Hawthorne uses the forest setting and supernatural elements to highlight the pervasive nature of evil.

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How is the nature of evil presented in "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

As in others of his works, in "Young Goodman Brown," Nathaniel Hawthorne suggests an accusation of the "secret sin" of hypocrisy--the grievous evil in men's hearts.  Like so many Puritans, Goodman Brown is sanctimonious in "his evil purpose," declaring to the devilish old man who acts as his escort into the dark forest,

'My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him.  We have been a race of honest men and good Crhistians since the days of the martyrs; and shall I be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path and kep'--

While Goodman Brown deceives himself into thinking that he can walk with evil and not sin because he is such a good man, the devil's reply is a rebuttal of this hypocrisy and acts as foreshadowing for the double entendre, "loss of Faith," in "Young Goodman Brown":

'Such company, thou wouldst say....I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say.  I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knowt,...to set fire to an Indian village....They were my good friends, both....

Yet, Goodman Brown continues his walk into the forest "applauding himself greatly, and thinking with how clear a conscience he should meet the minister in his morning walk..."  And, while an ambiguity is certainly established in Hawthorne's conclusion as Goodman Brown is uncertain the next day as to whether he actually "lost his Faith" in witnessing her joining the devil or whether he dreamt this act, Goodman Brown's Puritan heart that will admit no sin to himself, forestalls forgiveness of all who were supposedly present that night whether they actually sinned or not.  Herein, certainly lies the evil: This hypocrisy, the "secret sin" of the Puritans is what Hawthorne decries in his tale of "Young Goodman Brown."

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How is the nature of evil presented in "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

The evil in the story allegedly comes from the devil and could be described as diabolical. According to the Bible, which the Puritans based their society on, the devil was both shrewd and a master of disguise, often taking on the form of an "angel of light" or in the case of Young Goodman Brown, a form resembling Brown's father. He lures Brown deeper and deeper into the forest by introducing characters Brown has known all his life. At the end of the story, the devil shows off his greatest achievement of the evening by implying that Faith, Brown's wife is also about to give her soul to the devil. However, Hawthorne in a typically ambiguous way, has Brown wake up in the forest, never really knowing if Faith gave into the devil or not. In fact, the alert reader may even question whether the entire dialogue with the devil actually took place or whether is was simply part of Brown's imagination. That interpretation would change the nature of evil in the story to that which can be imagined by man himself. Either way, Brown's life and trust is his fellow man is ruined and he never enjoys life again.

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In "Young Goodman Brown," does Hawthorne suggest a force of evil bringing horror and destruction?

Had Hawthorne been of the same generation as William Golding, he would have been in accord with Simon who realizes that the "beast" is within the boys, inherent in the nature of man. This knowledge of innate evil, Young Goodman Brown misses; consequently, he rejects Faith when she greets him. While his knowledge is ambiguous, "a black cloud of doubt" covers him, he does, however,  realize that his Puritan Calvinistic faith is more diabolic than divine.  It is this disillusionment in Calvinism that causes Brown to learn the full terrible significance and irrelevance of his Puritan faith with its simplistic division of the "elect" and those predestined to condemnation. There is "misery unutterable" for Brown because he has come vis-a-vis with his own evil.  Indeed, it is this recognition of evil in the very hearts of men that causes Kurtz of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness to exclaim despairingly, "The horror! the horror!" For, evil is no force outside himself in the world; instead, it lies within the man himself.

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In "Young Goodman Brown," does Hawthorne suggest a force of evil bringing horror and destruction?

In my opinion, I do believe there is a power of darkness and evil in the world. Of course Hawthorne personifies this evil in the man that Brown meets on his travels through the forest. And he alludes to the involvement of evil in the lives of even the most upright, as those who he sees in the woods have their own personal relationship with this personification of evil, as did (Brown learns) his seemingly upright ancestors.

For me, I only need to look at men like Hitler or Charles Manson. (And there are so many others.) I turn on the news and see it every day. Someone might suggest that these are sociopaths, people who feel no guilt for what they do. However, I believe that except for those who do not know the difference between right and wrong because of a mental condition (as opposed to those who know, but ignore this distinction), the horror other human beings are subjected to at the hands of evil people convinces me that evil is "alive and well" in the world. Most recently is the case of Jerry Sandusky. It breaks my heart to think of the young boys he has terrorized and abused. How can there be no evil in the world when our children are no longer safe? When life is cheap and the taking of it, as in Darfur, is a casual event that does not even seem to cause hesitation, however brief? 

The story of Young Goodman Brown is allegorical, and as such, I believe it touches on the truth of what Brown faces in Hawthorne's view of everyday life. As is the case with those who practice evil in the world, one has a choice as to how he or she reacts to it. Brown becomes a miserable old man who chooses to mistrust everyone rather than fight for goodness and find the light that exists in people who choose to battle against the call of sin. For theologically, all live in sin. It is what one chooses to do in light of this that separates the Browns from the Faiths.

In terms of Hawthorne's view, his work is appreciated because...

....[of] its storytelling qualities and for the moral and theological questions it raises.

Certainly Hawthorne must have believed in evil, for the actions of his own ancestors. One was a magistrate...

...who once ordered the public whipping of a Quaker woman.

Another was guilty of condemning the innocent to death during the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century in Massachusetts.

To me, evil has its own way with Brown—for his sin of pride and his judgment of others (both in opposition to the Christian teachings, but so embraced by the Puritans, of which Brown was one) turn him into someone who is filled with darkness and is unable to live charitably with others. 

It was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy Psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. 

Yes, I believe there is a "force of evil in the world, actively working to bring horror and destruction." Its tools are people, only too willing to do what they want without regard for others.

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In "Young Goodman Brown," does Hawthorne suggest a force of evil bringing horror and destruction?

According to Henry James, an admirer of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the emphasis on human wickedness in Hawthorne's work was not to be taken too seriously. Hawthorne was using it for artistic purposes. What happens to Young Goodman Brown and his sweet little wife in the story is somewhat shocking, but it is also intended to be somewhat amusing. Hawthorne did not believe "that there is a powerful force of evil in the world, actively working to bring horror and destruction," to quote your question. He was too intelligent and too well educated to hold such superstitious beliefs. He did believe that there are bad traits in all humans which most of us take pains to conceal, perhaps even to conceal from ourselves. Hawthorne's stories about human evil, like Poe's, should be taken with a grain of salt. It is true that some people do bad things, but not that they are being controlled by the Devil. Such notions were common among the Puritans, and Hawthorne was practically satirizing them in some of his tales. Readers find such stories exciting. Murder mysteries are the most popular genre fiction today.

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