In “Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a variety of literary devices in creating a story with a strong theme and characters which are fully rounded and believable. Of these devices, his use of symbolism and imagery are rife. This is of the more well-known stories exploring 17th Century Puritanism and, even on a first read, it is clear why. Hawthorne depicts the chosen situation carefully and convincingly to the reader, not only entertaining them but also informing them as well. As with many of Hawthorne’s works, this story has been discussed by many academics in the field over the years since it was written. In reading different interpretations of “Young Goodman Brown,” it is possible to cross reference them and formulate an informed thesis. Overall, in supporting such a strong theme as Puritanism of the 17th Century, Hawthorne has used symbolism and imagery throughout in order to both reiterate and enforce his subject matter.
“Young Goodman Brown” introduces a 17th century Puritan man who is trying to reach justification, just as was necessary as part of protagonist’s faith. Having finished his trip, however, Brown failed to tackle the evil within him and, in turn, decided to turn away from society. Hawthorne was attentive of the subject of Puritan justification as an assumed passage to hell, required for a decent person. Frequently referring to the heart as hell, Puritans discovered themselves in the centre of Satan and his crowd of demons as he ingrained his kingdom within the heart of man. As Johnson points out, “It was an interior landscape more bleak and far more treacherous than the external one in which the New World Puritan found himself” (Johnson 11). This was a terrible disclosure that resulted in Brown’s harbouring of resentment and mistrust, as happened with Puritans in the 17th Century. Hawthorne has created this echo as the overriding theme throughout the story. Furthermore, it is introduced in a way that is accessible to most readers, regardless of their individual religious backgrounds.
Puritan populations, held by their traditional faith, handled the wicked wasteland that surrounded them. Based in Salem in 1692, Goodman Brown’s encounter with the evil forest connected with the Puritan symbol of doubt of their immoral hearts. The dark and eerie forest signified the deceitfulness and inherent badness of man’s heart. In other words, just as Brown was unable to trust the shadows that he witnessed in the trees, he was also unable to trust his own desires. The desires of his heart, therefore, needed to be removed during his journey into the forest, and this journey turned into one heading for justification. Once Brown had heard his wife’s voice and seen her pink ribbon, his evil heart was broken. He shouted: “My Faith is gone . . . . There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come Devil; for to thee is this world given.”
Hawthorne used “Young Goodman Brown” to generate a mindfulness comparable to that of the Journey of Justification. He planned for the reader to understand the actuality of sin and hell that was shown to Brown in the forest. Nevertheless, Hawthorne also planned for his reader to use that mindfulness and in order to handle life in a purer, more productive way. Segregation and refutation of all who have sinned would, undoubtedly, result in an unhappy conclusion. As Fogle contends: “Hawthorne poses the dangerous question of the relations of Good and Evil in man but withholds his answer. Nor does he permit himself to determine whether the events . . . are real” (Fogle 16). In this way, the ultimate interpretation of the story is left in the hands of the reader, allowing for differences in lives and beliefs.
“The Young Goodman Brown” is portrayed as an symbol of the threat involved in forsaking a Christian faith, even if for just a few hours. As could be predicted, the story is littered with examples of symbolism. On first read, the obvious symbols are unsubtle; it seems as though Hawthorne wanted to make them obvious to the majority of readers. However, on second reading, deeper meanings tend to shine through, especially in the concluding few paragraphs.
In the opening paragraph, we are told that Brown is leaving his wife, Faith, with the intention to visit the forest for the night. Her name is an obvious representation of her husband’s religious beliefs. Furthermore, faith is wearing pink ribbon on her hat. This ribbon is mentioned several times. As Levy discusses, “Brown calls out three times for Faith to come to his aid, and not until he sees a pink ribbon from Faith’s cap that has fluttered down from the sky and caught on the branch of a tree does he abandon hope . . . . the tangible evidence of Faith’s desertion” (Levy 117). On the other hand, the pink ribbon could also signify lust. As Abel points out: “The pink ribbon seen in the forest may be merely a lustful projection of the goodman’s depraved fancy, which wills wickedness . . . even as it reluctantly departs from its forfeited innocence” (Abel 136).
Faith asks him not to go: to stay with her. However, Brown sticks to his plan. The sun is setting as Brown leaves for his journey and the landscape becomes progressively darker as the story goes on. This is a clear symbol for the light of religion becoming progressively less in the man’s heart. Brown walks into the forest, in which the darkness signifies the solitude of a life without God. As Bunge says: “Hawthorne emphasizes the split between convention and the unconscious by having Brown move from the town to the country as he follows his impulses. The deeper he moves into the forest, the more completely he becomes one with his ‘evil’” (Bunge 13).
Once into the woods Brown meets the his companion, who is symbolising the devil. The reader is alerted to his character by the mention of the snakelike staff he carries. As Hale interestingly points out: “when the diabolic companion throws his twisted staff down at the feet of Goody Cloyse,” this reflects the bible tale of “Aaron who had thrown down his rod before Pharoah, and so had the magicians of Egypt done with theirs, and all became serpents . . . ” (Hale 17). The devil is depicted as looking alike to Brown himself. This reflects the Puritan view that the devil is comfortable in any domain and is capable of corrupting anyone.
Once Brown runs madly through the forest, his plight symbolises the bewilderment and darkness that a person will experience once they have abandoned their faith. Brown finds himself in the witches' coven, yet appears to rescue his soul at the last minute by pleading to heaven. The coven promptly vanishes, and Brown heads back towards town, apparently saved. However, the final three paragraphs finish the tale in an ambiguous manner. Brown goes back to the village as a hostile and frightened man and is ever more distrustful of the religious purity of others. The happy ending the reader is perhaps expecting is not delivered.
“Young Goodman Brown” is an intelligent and well thought out story by an author with a well-earned reputation for delivering such works. This particular story explores the theme of Puritanism in the 17th Century; according to several academics, Hawthorne has done this convincingly. In writing the story, the author has used various literary techniques, symbolism and imagery being two of the most obvious. Sometimes plain and, at other times, more subtle, the use of representation effectively supports and deepens the messages within the story. The use of Brown’s wife, Faith, for example, as a symbol of his religious faith, is one of the more obvious representations. Nonetheless, the symbol works effectively, especially when combined with more subtle and ambiguous symbols, such as the ribbon on Faith’s hat. Overall, Hawthorne has combined the use of theme, imagery and symbolism in creating this gripping and thoughtful story.
Abel, Darrel. The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne’s Fiction. Indiana: Purdue UP, 1988.
Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and The Dark. Noman: U of Oklahoma P, 1970.
Hale, John K. “The Serpentine Staff in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 19 (Fall 1993): 17-18.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Young Goodman Brown." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 7th ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 403-411.
Johnson, Claudia D. The Productive Tension of Hawthorne’s Art. University, AL: U of Alabama P, 1981.
Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Modern Critcial Views: Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 115-126.