Themes and Meanings
“Young Goodman Brown” is the classic American short story of the guilty conscience. The question Brown confronts is whether his heritage of Original Sin incapacitates him for resisting personal sin. In this profoundly ambiguous story, Brown wavers between the desperate cynicism of the corrupt soul and the hopefulness of the believer. At the beginning of the story, he has already made his bargain with the Devil—hardly a token that he is among God’s elect but not necessarily a sign of damnation, either, if he can reject the consummation in the form of the perverted communion service in the woods. Whether by act of will or by divine grace, Brown appears to have resisted the power of evil at the climactic moment and given evidence of at least the possibility of salvation for his wife and himself.
However, if he has, what can be made of his life thereafter? All family and community relationships have been poisoned, and if he can be said to retain his faith, he appears to have lost hope completely. If the ability to resist the Devil at his own table is victory, he has triumphed; if he has made the effort at the expense of his capability for human trust, he has met spiritual defeat. Hawthorne raises the question of whether Brown fell asleep in the forest and dreamed the witches’ Sabbath. The reader, invited to ponder whether one dream could have such an intensive and extensive effect, may well proceed to wonder why Brown found it necessary to invade the forest at night merely to have a bad dream. If, on the other hand, any part of the forest encounter with the Devil and witches is “real,” is Hawthorne to be regarded as a Manichaean who is demonstrating the power of evil?
“Young Goodman Brown” may also be read as a story concerned less with measuring the extent of evil in the world and assessing the moral prospects of the guilty than with studying the psychology of guilt. It may be doubted that Hawthorne would exercise his creative powers merely to affirm or quarrel with Calvinism, which had largely lost its grip on New Englanders’ allegiance by 1835, but he clearly retained a strong interest in the psychological atmosphere fostered by Calvinism. Dilemmas such as the opposition between divine foreordination and free will and that between God’s stern and irrevocable judgment and the possibility of his mercy and proffered grace continued to baffle conservative Christians in an era that offered a doctrinally less strenuous alternative such as Unitarianism. The old habits of mind had been challenged, but they were not dead.
Hawthorne’s insight into the stages of Brown’s guilt is acute. Part of Brown’s initial firmness in his resolve to go into the woods and in his confidence that his wife, by staying at home, saying her prayers, and going to bed early will remain unharmed, is his sense of the uniqueness of his own daring. Departing from the ways of the pious and arranging an interview with the Devil lends glamour to his quest. He imagines a “devilish Indian behind every tree” but cannot suppose any other Christian in these precincts. He exudes the confidence of a person who expects to retain control of the situation and pull back if he so decides. When he discovers that he is simply another sinner, simply another member of a corrupt race, he loses all dignity, all capacity for moral inquiry. Giving in to a mindless, emotional indulgence, he is later checked by the awesome finality of the Black Mass and acknowledges his insufficiency; then, for the first and only time in the story, he calls on God for assistance.
In this story and in such other fictions as “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Ethan Brand,” and The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne depicts the inner conflict resulting from a guilt that is suppressed, felt to be unshareable and unforgivable. Regardless of whether it is justified, Brown’s feeling of guilt is real, and to call his experience “only a dream” is to undervalue dreams, which, though read in vastly different ways over the centuries, have always been considered vitally significant by interpreters. Even if Brown is regarded as irrational, letting one night destroy his life, Hawthorne makes the reader feel such irrationality as a dreadful possibility.