What happens in Young Goodman Brown?

Newlywed Goodman Brown reluctantly leaves his wife Faith for the night to keep an appointment. In the woods, he meets a "man" who resembles both his grandfather and the Devil. This man carries a large staff with a serpent head that appears to writhe in the dark.

  • Brown witness a conversation between the Devil and Goody Cloyse, Brown's catechism teacher. Brown is appalled when Goody proclaims the name of the Devil and confesses her evil deeds.
  • Brown vows to return to Salem and devote himself to Faith and their religion. On the way back, he overhears a conversation between Deacon Gookin and the minister, who discuss an unholy congregation.
  • Brown witnesses a Black Mass wherein everyone he once considered pious, including his own Faith, worships the Devil. Brown joins them, but the scene dissolves around him after he urges Faith to forsake the Devil. Uncertain if what he witnessed was real or just a dream, Brown becomes suspicious of everyone and eventually dies a miserable old man.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Young Goodman Brown” is a perfect example of Hawthorne’s favorite theme: that human nature is full of hidden wickedness. The young hero’s journey in the story is symbolic of one’s journey through life, in which each individual gradually loses his or her naïveté and innocence as a result of exposure to greed, lust, envy, perversion, and the other sins of humanity.

The crowning blow to Brown’s naïve conception of the world comes when he discovers that his own meek and innocent wife, Faith, is one of the celebrants at the Walpurgis Night orgy. As is often the case, Hawthorne treats his theme with a tongue-in-cheek humor which arises mainly from the contrast between people’s real characters and the false faces they present to the world. The humor is vital to this story; the reader is enticed along the forest pathway by an illusion of frivolity and comes to realize the full horror intended only after finishing the last page.

Stories such as this entitle Hawthorne to be considered one of the principal founders of the modern short story, a form of literature in which American authors have excelled. The essence of a modern short story, as defined by Edgar Allan Poe in a newspaper review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, is that every detail contributes to a single effect. Prior to Hawthorne’s time, short stories tended to be episodic and loosely structured, often resembling essays. The single effect of a modern short story can be produced by the overall mood, as is often the case in the works of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, or by a surprising or shocking ending, as is usually the case in the stories of the French writer Guy de Maupassant and the American writer O. Henry. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” the effect of terror and dismay is produced by the surprise ending. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the effect of horror and disillusionment spiced with sardonic humor is produced by the overall mood.

Hawthorne writes about...

(The entire section is 2,309 words.)