“Young Goodman Brown” tells the tale of a young Puritan man drawn into a covenant with the Devil, which he adamantly tries to resist. His illusions about the goodness of society are crushed when he discovers that many of his fellow townspeople, including religious leaders and his wife, are attending the same Black Mass.
“Young Goodman Brown” takes the form of an allegory. An allegory uses symbolic elements to represent various human characteristics and situations. Brown represents Everyman (“Goodman” was a title for those under the social rank of”gentleman”) while Faith represents his faith in humanity and society. In leaving his wife, Brown forsakes his belief in the godliness of humanity. He immediately enters a wood”lonely as could be” that is enshrouded in a “deep dusk.” These woods are the physical location in which Brown explores his doubts and opposing desires, and as such represent his personal hell. When he tells his companion “Faith kept me back awhile,” it is clear that he feels ambivalent about forging a pact with the Devil. Yet, while Brown pledges to return to Faith several times, he continues his dark journey. Although Brown eventually leaves the physical location of the woods, mentally he stays there for the rest of his life.
Examples of symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown” include the pink hair ribbons, which represent Faith’s innocence, and the snake-like staff, which is symbolic of the form the Devil takes to corrupt Adam and Eve in the Bible. Another symbol emphasizes a reaction instead of an object. The example unfolds part way through Brown’s journey into the woods, immediately after he recognizes the voices of the deacon and the minister. The narrator relates that “Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburdened with the heavy sickness of his heart.” This action symbolizes Brown’s wavering faith and his growing realization that he is losing his basis of moral support.
Point of View
Throughout “Young Goodman Brown” point-of-view swings subtly between the narrator and the title character. As a result, readers are privy to Goodman Brown’s deepest, darkest thoughts, while also receiving an objective view of his behavior. Early in the story readers learn from Brown himself that he expects his journey to be a one-time event: “Well, [Faith is] a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.” In contrast, readers get an intriguing perspective on Brown’s mad dash to the Devil’s altar from the objective narrator: “The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds … . But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.” By the end of the story, the narrator supplies the only point of view; Brown’s voice is conspicuously absent. This shift symbolizes the loss of Brown’s faith.
Hawthorne uses foreshadowing to build suspense and offer clues as to the story’s direction. As Brown leaves for his mysterious journey, Faith voices her doubts: “Prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeared of herself sometimes.” This statement predicts Faith’s betrayal and her appearance at the Black Mass. Brown offers a second example of foreshadowing during a brief monologue: “What a wretch I am to leave her on such an errand … . Methought as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But no, no; ‘t would kill her to think it.” Here Hawthorne hints both at Brown’s later confusion over whether he had dreamed his experience and the symbolic death of Faith’s innocence at the Black Mass.
Romanticism was a literary movement originating in the eighteenth century that emphasized imagination and emotion, yet it was also marked by sensibility and autobiographical elements. According to Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, Romanticists held that absolute principles lead to personal failure. Based on the destiny of the title character, it is clear Hawthorne subscribes to this theory as well. Unable to accept the duality of human nature—that good and evil can and often do exist side by side—Goodman Brown lives out the rest of his days as “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.”
Other examples of the Romanticist at work include an underlying message in “Young Goodman Brown” that urges readers to examine the effect their behavior has on others and to change accordingly. This message illustrates the Romanticist conviction that human nature can change for the better.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 1997.