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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

Newlywed Goodman Brown sets forth at sunset for the nearby forest, where he apparently has an appointment. Leaving Salem village, he promises his wife, Faith, that he will return after this single night. Confused by Brown’s odd behavior and mysterious errand, Faith fails to convince him to remain at home, or at least to delay his journey until the following morning. Criticizing her for doubting his purposes, Brown nevertheless seems conscience-stricken about his own motivations. He vows to be true to Faith and to their religious faith—after this one night. His wife can only hope that this experience, whatever it is, will not change their lives for the worse.

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Soon after he walks into the darkening forest, Brown expresses fear that in the gloomy wilderness he could easily be ambushed by the devil himself. He then sees a man (actually, the text suggests that he looks “like” a man) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Brown’s own venerated grandfather. This man uses a crooked walking stick that resembles a serpent—from a distance and in the dim light it even seems to wiggle. Asked by the man why he is late for his appointment, Brown responds that Faith had delayed him. As the two walk and talk, Brown periodically voices his apprehension and says he must return to Salem and Faith.

Asserting his family’s virtue, Brown disbelieves his companion’s account of being well acquainted with the people of New England, including Brown’s father and grandfather. Brown then observes the man meeting with his pious catechism teacher, Goody Cloyse, who exclaims the devil’s name when the man startles her with a touch of the serpent-staff. She reveals her diabolical deeds as the two chat.

Brown congratulates himself with the thought that, however evil Goody Cloyse proves to be, he will return to Salem with a clear conscience to talk of religious truths with the minister and Deacon Gookin. Brown then overhears the minister and the deacon discuss an unholy congregation and new converts. Apparent evidence mounts that, indeed, the devil is intimate with even moral and religious New Englanders. Brown is especially troubled by the indiscriminate mingling of the godly and the ungodly. However, he remains defiant and maintains that he still has Faith, whereupon the pink ribbons of his wife flutter down from the sky.

As if struck by a blow, at this instant Brown is overwhelmed by disillusionment: Even his Faith has gone the way of Satan. Despairing and hysterical, he now believes that there is no goodness and the world is wholly evil.

Brown is led to a clearing in the forest where pine trees blaze like gigantic candles above an altar made of stone. The satanic congregation’s holy hymns have unholy lyrics. Brown and Faith stand as converts, soon to be initiated into this bizarre congregation and the belief that evil is the sole and essential nature of humankind. They will soon even gaze upon each other’s disgusting sinfulness. The devil dips his hand into water that looks like blood, reaching forth to initiate the young couple with the mark of this perverse baptism. In a final impulse of virtue Brown tells Faith to resist Satan. Then there is nothing—no blazing trees, no baptismal blood, no ominously chanting congregation. Brown finds himself alone in the dark, damp, and cool forest. Disoriented, he slowly wanders back to Salem at sunrise.

Was this episode in the woods real, or was it merely a dream? In either case, the experience destroys Brown’s ability to accept and enjoy life. Back in Salem, he is ever after a moody and depressed man, distrustful and incapable of joy. All he sees is the evil that has been revealed to him; all he perceives, therefore, is human hypocrisy. He cannot endure listening to preaching and prayers and hymn singing; he snatches a child away from Goody Cloyse as she instructs the girl about religious truths. Villagers cannot understand Brown and his strange and inexplicable transformation. After a long and lonely life, he dies despairing and joyless.

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