At a Glance
- Hawthorne unearths the weaknesses of faith in "Young Goodman Brown." Brown's faith draws its strength from those around him, relying on public displays of faith to bolster his own piety. Without that communal sense of morality, Hawthorne suggests, Brown's faith is easily corrupted.
- Guilt is one of the central themes of "Young Goodman Brown." Hawthorne explores the different stages of Brown's guilt, depicting the erosion of his confidence and his loss of faith in humanity. Unable to share his guilt or share his suspicions with those around him, he dies bitter and joyless, having succumbed to despair.
- Hawthorne explores the themes of good and evil in "Young Goodman Brown." The Devil, an old man with a serpent-headed staff, is the embodiment of evil and uses his power to bring out the evil in others. Goodman Brown, once a pious Puritan, becomes suspicious of everyone, finding sinners left and right.
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...
(The entire section is 1,506 words.)