“Young Goodman Brown” Themes
The main themes in “Young Goodman Brown” are Puritan hypocrisy, loss of faith, and the victory of evil.
- Puritan hypocrisy: Hawthorne denounces the hypocrisy of Puritan society by portraying the hidden sinfulness of those who appear outwardly virtuous.
- Loss of faith: After his experience in the forest, Goodman Brown loses his faith in those around him, including his wife, who is aptly named Faith.
- The victory of evil: Evil prevails in this story, with Goodman Brown condemned to a hell of his own making even after rejecting the devil.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Hawthorne sees all humanity as corrupt and wicked, but he is particularly harsh in his denunciations of those who attempt to conceal their wickedness behind a facade of virtue. As he welcomes Faith and Goodman Brown to the Satanic communion, the devil provides an eloquent and detailed description of Puritan hypocrisy:
Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet, here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youth have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.
Of the four specific sins mentioned in this passage, three involve murder: first a wife poisoning her husband, then a young man hastening the death of his father, and finally a young woman burying her child. The three generations killed by wife, son, and mother show the ubiquity, even the universality, of sins that are also capital crimes. Even before this, Goody Cloyse fawning before the devil, and the glee of the minister and the deacon at the corruption and subversion of religious rites demonstrate the hollowness of their claims to virtue.
Goodman Brown is an Everyman figure, but he is specifically a Puritan Everyman. The Puritans call each other “Goodman” and “Goodwife” or “Goody,” but Hawthorne does not depict anyone in the story as good. For him, the Puritan Everyman is one who hides his evil nature and deeds behind a pretense of goodness, and Goodman Brown quickly learns of his own corruption, along with that of his father and grandfather, his wife, and the entire Puritan community of Salem.
Loss of Faith
“Young Goodman Brown” clearly functions as an allegory. The protagonist’s name is symbolic, and so is that of his young wife, Faith. Goodman Brown’s relationship with Faith is initially portrayed as simple and naïve, and it disintegrates all too rapidly under pressure. When he sees the pink ribbon fluttering down from the sky, he immediately cries out:
My Faith is gone! . . . There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.
At this point in the story, the identification of Faith the woman with the quality of faith in God or man is perfectly precise. Brown has lost both at the same time and promptly becomes a frightening figure in his own right, flying through the forest, cackling and blaspheming on his way to the Satanic ceremony.
Hawthorne portrays the loss of faith as an ongoing process. At the ceremony, Brown thinks he has regained both Faith and faith at least twice, once when he sees no sign of his wife in the congregation, and again when he cries out to her to look up to heaven and resist the devil. In the end, he does not literally lose her but lives out his life with her in an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion, having lost all the faith he had in any form of human goodness or love. He has lost his wife even as he lies beside her in bed, and he continually turns away from...
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the quality of faith itself in a similar fashion.
The Victory of Evil
There is a moment in “Young Goodman Brown” which seems to provide hope for a happy ending, involving the redemption of the protagonist and his wife. It is a false hope, since this is a story by Hawthorne, but it is easy to see how the story might have taken a different turn in other hands. The moment comes when Brown and Faith are about to be baptized into the communion of evil by the devil himself:
“Faith! Faith!” cried the husband. “Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!”
At this crucial point, Young Goodman Brown rejects the devil and chooses salvation. This choice, however, makes no difference. It is not even important whether any of the events in the forest really took place or not. The devil prevails even if he does not exist, since the corrupt nature of humanity is enough to create hell on earth, even if there is none elsewhere.
Hawthorne is content to let the reader think that Brown might have been dreaming, and even to raise this possibility, because he knows how compelling his view of humanity really is. Once Brown has been introduced to the idea that the respectable, pious people around him are liars and hypocrites, this appears so plausible that he instantly accepts it for the rest of his life. Hawthorne has no interest in any cosmic battle between God and Satan for the souls of men. The story stops with death because the author does not need to go beyond the grave to make his point that, on earth, evil has already won.