Young Goodman Brown Themes

The main themes in "Young Goodman Brown" are faith, guilt, and good versus evil.

  • Faith: Brown relies on the faith of others to bolster his own piety. Without that communal sense of morality, Brown's faith is easily corrupted.
  • Guilt: After his experience in the woods, Brown loses his confidence and faith. Unable to share his guilt or his suspicions with those around him, he dies bitter and joyless.
  • Good versus evil: The Devil is the embodiment of evil and uses his power to bring out the evil in others. Goodman Brown, once a pious Puritan, has his faith and good nature corrupted.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

“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...

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“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.

Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 285

Turning to the history of New England as he did for so many of his tales, Hawthorne centers his attention in this tale on the effects of the rigid Puritan theocracy on a young man who has begun to doubt the goodness of those around him. Drawing on the history of his ancestors, the writer creates a story which is a subtle inversion of a traditional New England Puritan theme: the errand into the wilderness. The men and women who fled religious persecution and settled the rocky area north of the Long Island Sound and along the Atlantic coast saw themselves as bringing God's word to the savages of the New World and establishing a society of the elect. Both communally and individually, they entered into a covenant with their Maker: On their side, they would abide by the strict commandments outlined in the Bible, and in return God would grant them eternal salvation.

Goodman Brown's quest into the wilderness is a journey to test this doctrine. Besieged with doubt about the holiness of those around him — and perhaps doubting the depth of his own commitment to goodness as well — he seeks to get behind the public masks of his fellow citizens to see if they are really as devoted to God as they profess. Hawthorne's hero discovers what he most fears: that evil lies in the hearts of all whom he has trusted, even his most beloved wife. The writer's position is not that of his protagonist, however: Throughout the tale Hawthorne provides subtle clues that Goodman Brown sees what he wishes, and that he ascribes motives without sufficient proof — a form of arrogance against which Hawthorne rails in a number of his works.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

"Young Goodman Brown" tells the story of a Puritan man who loses faith in humankind after he thinks he witnesses his wife and respected members of his town participating in a Black Mass. His experience dooms him to a life of gloom and mistrust.

Guilt vs. Innocence
Hawthorne presents Young Goodman Brown's evening of diabolical revelry as the first and last fling with evil the inexperienced young man ever has. Early in the story, Brown says: "after this one night I'll cling to [Faith's] skirts and follow her to heaven." He believes Faith is an "angel" and one of the Puritan elect who is destined for heaven.

Unfortunately, Brown's experience in the forest makes him reject his previous conviction of the prevailing power of good. He instead embraces the Devil's claim—"Evil is the nature of mankind"— by crying out ''Come, devil: for to thee is this world given." This acknowledgment, fueled by the discovery of hypocrisy in the catechist, clergy, the magistrates of Salem, and his own wife, destroys Brown's faith in the Puritan elect. It also sets the tone for the rest of his life. Critics often view this outcome as an attack by Hawthorne on the unredemptive nature of the Puritan belief system, which holds that people are evil by nature because of original sin.

Alienation vs. Community
Though Brown successfully rejects the Devil in his physical form, he allows sin to reside within him when he rejects his belief in humanity. "Often, awakening suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed at his wife, and turned away." By turning away, Brown becomes the symbolic representation of Hawthorne's belief in the isolation of the human spirit. In Hawthorne's own words, every human being is alone "in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart."

Good vs. Evil
In "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne presents sin as an inescapable part of human nature. The fact that Goodman Brown only has to make his journey into the evil forest once suggests that the spiritual quest is a ritual all humans must undergo at some point in their lives. Brown, however, proves himself incapable of accepting this part of the human condition and cannot move forward with his life as a result.

Faith, on the other hand, makes a leap of love and faith to welcome her husband back with open arms from his inexplicable night away from home. Brown, however, "looks sadly and sternly into her face and passes without greeting." Whereas Faith is able to accept the inevitable fallen nature of humanity and live prosperously with this realization, Brown the absolutist cannot accept this truth, and remains stuck in a state of suspicion and ill feelings. By portraying these two reactions, Hawthorne makes a statement not only about the black-and-white, Puritan view of good and evil, but how evil can take other forms as well.

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