Young Goodman Brown is a short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which deals with the journey of introspection undertaken by its protagonist Goodman Brown. First published in the year 1835, the story is heavily influenced by the early Puritan religious beliefs and the culture of Salem, Massachusetts, which is the hometown of Hawthorne.
The story is one of the most anthologized works of Hawthorne, and is considered to be an attempt to expose the hypocrisy of the puritan beliefs. Many critics see this story as an allegory to ‘Everyman’s crisis of faith’. Through the use of various literary devices, like characterization and symbolism, Hawthorne in this story sheds light on the psychology of sin and the age old battle of good versus evil.
In the story, a young man, who believes in the virtuous nature of the community he lives in, embarks on a ‘dreamlike or dreamed’ journey into a forest in the night, which reveals to him the dark side of all the persons whom he trusted to be morally infallible. He sees the people whom he respected, looked up to and loved, all having gathered to perform a communal ritual that marks their allegiance to the devil itself.
Brown understands that the covenant of virtue of those people was delusional, and discovering his wife among the gathering further spurs his fall into despair. The encounter leaves Brown a changed man, and when he arrives back at his home in Salem, not knowing whether the previous day’s events were real or a dream, he loses faith in his religious values and the goodness of the people surrounding him.
Hawthorne uses many symbols particularly to represent evil and innocence. The serpent like cane carried by Brown’s companion in the forest is a symbolic allusion, to the serpent that poisoned the mind of Eve. The pink ribbon of Brown’s wife, Faith, is another symbol used by Hawthorne, and this symbol represents her innocence. The ribbons are described in the beginning of the story when Brown believes in his wife’s innocence, then in the forest where his faith is put to test, and later in the ending of the story, where he has doubt about the innocence of his wife.
The incidents are arranged chronologically, but the author does not describe clearly whether the encounter in forest is a dream or not. When the story begins, Brown has already made an agreement with the devil, whereby he meets him in the forest. The love he had for his wife and the pride over the virtues of his ancestors and the society around him makes him, say to the devil that he does not want to follow him. Though, in the end of the story, he is disillusioned and sees the ugliness in the people around him, he still emerges uncorrupted and refuses to side with the devil. There is an element of foreshadowing, particularly with reference to whom Brown will meet when he arrives at the communion.
Type of Story
The story has the elements of both a short story and a parable. It is a narrative which has a religious message, which makes it a parable. According to the Puritan belief, a person is inherently decadent because of Adam’s sins and he can be purified only by God’s grace. This process of purification starts by the person learning about his sins and praying for God’s grace. The story is an allegorical self-examination by Brown, who finds out his inner dark side and seeks the counsel of his community members only to find them equally corrupt.
The main character of the story is Goodman Brown and the entire story is narrated in his view point. He speaks lightly in the beginning and angrily towards the end of the story. At the beginning of the story, he is a happily married person, in love with his wife and proud about his ancestry and to be a part of a religious community. After his encounter with the devil, he is torn between, the desperate cynicism that engulfs him, on seeing all the people known to him on the devil’s side and the optimism, his faith in God imbibes him with. The experience leaves his familial and communal relationships poisoned, and he leads the rest of his life without any hope. While resisting the devil despite heavy persuasion can be claimed to be Brown’s victory, it came at a heavy price because he lost his ability to trust humans after that.
The other main characters are his wife, Faith, and the devil. The devil talks slowly and persuasively, while Faith talks fast to prevent her husband from venturing into the forest. The other village members also are described in the story in detail.
The story takes place in the early nineteenth century Salem. Most of the story takes place in a forest. The journey Brown takes inside a dark forest can be seen as an allegory to the self introspection he makes. Brown took upon the journey to seek answers about the nature of sin, and his journey resulted in his loss of innocence and an awakening to a crude world of cynicism.
Language and Style
Hawthorne uses a formal and elegant language, though he is handling a subject as harsh as man’s test of faith. Most of the story deals with Brown’s attempt to resist the evil in him from usurping the goodness within him. Yet, the language used to describe his trial is not harsh. For example, when he sees his wife at the pulpit of devil’s lair, he urges both her, and in the process, himself to resist the temptation, using the following words.
"Faith! Faith!" cried the husband. "Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!"
Hawthorne, N. (1835). Young Goodman Brown. Retrieved from http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~rebeccal/lit/238f11/pdfs/YoungGoodmanBrown.pdf
Little, A. C. (1997). Young Goodman Brown . Short Fiction: A Critical Companion, 83-91.