Last Updated on November 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 864
“There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,” said Goodman Brown to himself; and he glanced fearfully behind him, as he added, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”
Both of Goodman Brown’s apprehensions appear well-founded. There are to be numerous devilish American Indians at the Satanic congregation, and he is just about to encounter the devil himself in the next paragraph. In another sense, however, Brown’s fears are misdirected. The outwardly respectable Puritans among whom he lives are at least as devilish as the American Indians, and although he will walk with the devil, he will run to the Satanic congregation of his own volition, roaring and blaspheming as he does so. The irony of Goodman Brown’s fears, and those of the Puritan settlers in general, is that they look nervously around for signs of evil which any introspection would easily reveal within them.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
“Of the two, reverend sir,” said the voice like the deacon’s, “I had rather miss an ordination-dinner than tonight’s meeting. They tell me that some of our community are to be here from Falmouth and beyond, and others from Connecticut and Rhode-Island; besides several of the Indian powwows, who, after their fashion, know almost as much deviltry as the best of us. Moreover, there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion.”
Goodman Brown hears these words spoken by Deacon Gookin, whom he has previously regarded as a perfectly respectable and pious old gentleman. The comparison between the Satanic ritual and an ordination dinner emphasizes the extent to which the ministers of religion have subverted their rites in the service of the devil, as do the words “reverend sir” uttered in this context. The dismissive words “after their fashion” also emphasize that the respectable clergymen regard the heathens with whom they share the land not as material for conversion and salvation, but as amateurs in the dark arts who are less corrupt than the Puritans. The final sentence demonstrates a particularly sinister interest in the corruption of young women.
In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew, among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter, as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man.
The naïve attitude of Goodman Brown toward human wickedness earlier in the story makes his sudden transformation at this point all the more shocking. The forest has been established as the dark and frightening location of evil, yet Brown, through his loss of faith and hope, suddenly dominates it and becomes the most frightening figure in a place where Satan has gathered his minions about him. The final sentence offers a generalization which gives the reason for Brown’s sudden transformation into something more frightful than the devil himself: pure spirit, even a purely evil spirit, is not as horrible as corrupted humanity, which is the subject of Hawthorne’s focus.
“Lo! there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad, with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream! Now are ye undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again, my children, to the communion of your race!”
The devil here reminds the reader of Milton’s Satan, a figure capable of compassion, if not of kindness. He is proclaiming the final victory of evil, and the hollowness of both human love and virtue, but his tone is melancholy rather than triumphant. The use of the word “undeceived” is particularly significant, since the devil is known as the deceiver of mankind, the father of lies. In this story, however, it is mankind that is deceitful, and the devil is ironically alone in telling the truth, as well as in his sympathy for human suffering and his capacity for generosity.
And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.
Goodman Brown dies with the trappings of a life well lived. He is a grandfather, and his wife, children, and grandchildren, as well as plenty of his neighbors, dutifully attend his funeral. However, Hawthorne makes it clear that Brown has had a miserable and pointless existence. There is nothing to be written on his tombstone, and the only epitaph the story provides is the final word, “gloom.” This last sentence reads like a parody of a morality fable, showing the wages of suspicion and misanthropy not in any spectacular disaster, but in a long joyless life and a death mourned by no one.