“Young Goodman Brown” tells the story of a Puritan man who loses faith in humankind after he thinks he witnesses his wife and respected members of his town participating in a Black Mass. His experience dooms him to a life of gloom and mistrust.
Guilt vs. Innocence
Hawthorne presents Young Goodman Brown’s evening of diabolical revelry as the first and last fling with evil the inexperienced young man ever has. Early in the story, Brown says: “after this one night I’ll cling to [Faith’s] skirts and follow her to heaven.” He believes Faith is an “angel” and one of the Puritan elect who is destined for heaven.
Unfortunately, Brown’s experience in the forest makes him reject his previous conviction of the prevailing power of good. He instead embraces the Devil’s claim—”Evil is the nature of mankind”— by crying out “Come, devil: for to thee is this world given.” This acknowledgment, fueled by the discovery of hypocrisy in the catechist, clergy, the magistrates of Salem, and his own wife, destroys Brown’s faith in the Puritan elect. It also sets the tone for the rest of his life. Critics often view this outcome as an attack by Hawthorne on the unredemptive nature of the Puritan belief system, which holds that people are evil by nature because of original sin.
Alienation vs. Community
Though Brown successfully rejects the Devil in his physical form, he allows sin to reside within him when he rejects his belief in humanity. “Often, awakening suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed at his wife, and turned away.” By turning away, Brown becomes the symbolic representation of Hawthorne’s belief in the isolation of the human spirit. In Hawthorne’s own words, every human being is alone “in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.”
Good vs. Evil
In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne presents sin as an inescapable part of human nature. The fact that Goodman Brown only has to make his journey into the evil forest once suggests that the spiritual quest is a ritual all humans must undergo at some point in their lives. Brown, however, proves himself incapable of accepting this part of the human condition and cannot move forward with his life as a result.
Faith, on the other hand, makes a leap of love and faith to welcome her husband back with open arms from his inexplicable night away from home. Brown, however, “looks sadly and sternly into her face and passes without greeting.” Whereas Faith is able to accept the inevitable fallen nature of humanity and live prosperously with this realization, Brown the absolutist cannot accept this truth, and remains stuck in a state of suspicion and ill feelings. By portraying these two reactions, Hawthorne makes a statement not only about the black-and-white, Puritan view of good and evil, but how evil can take other forms as well.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 1997.