Young Goodman Brown Summary
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown Summary

"Young Goodman Brown" is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which Puritan Goodman Brown witnesses the residents of his town engaging in Devil worship.

  • Goodman Brown meets with the Devil in the woods, and he watches in horror as other residents of his Puritan community gleefully confess their sins to the Devil. 
  • Brown reluctantly attends a Black Mass wherein everyone he once considered pious, including his wife, Faith, is in attendance. The scene dissolves around him after he urges Faith to "resist."
  • Uncertain if what he witnessed was real, 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 witches and devils as would someone who does not really believe in such grotesque creatures but appreciates them as colorful and dramatic symbols of humanity’s hidden guilt and fear. Some of his stories are not unlike modern horror films, which evoke laughter from the audience along with shivers and shrieks. This indicates a sophisticated modern attitude which was characteristic of many of Hawthorne’s European and American contemporaries, who were trying to reconcile traditional beliefs with modern scientific knowledge.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Young Goodman Brown is bidding his wife, Faith, farewell at their front door. It is evening in the village, and he is going on a guilty errand, a fact that he clearly recognizes and deplores but an errand he has chosen to undertake nevertheless. Taking a route into the forest, he meets, as by appointment, an older man who bears a fatherly resemblance to both Brown and the Devil.

Brown initially considers his decision to go on his unholy errand an exceptional one, but he soon discovers that other presumably exemplary villagers are on the same path, including, to his amazement, Goody Cloyse, a pious old woman who once taught him his catechism but who readily confesses to the practice of witchcraft. With Brown still confident that he can turn back, his older companion departs, leaving behind his curiously snakelike staff and fully...

(The entire section is 2,309 words.)