Faith Brown serves an allegorical purpose in this story. It is Faith that Brown leaves behind, presumably for one night, in order to keep his appointment with the Devil. Explaining to the old man why he is late Brown says, “Faith kept me back a while.” She represents the force of good in the world. Thus, when Brown perceives that she too has been corrupted, he shouts “My Faith is gone!” and rushes madly toward the witches’s gathering.
The pink ribbons that decorate Faith’s cap have drawn more critical attention than any other symbol in the story. On one hand they have been said to represent female sexuality, while on the other, innocence. Or, they may merely signify the ornament of a sweet and cheerful wife. Whatever their purpose, Faith’s pink ribbons are integral to the story’s structure. They are mentioned three times: at the beginning when Brown is leaving Faith behind, near the climax when Brown sees a pink ribbon floating down from the heavens, and at the end when Brown is greeted by his wife upon his return.
Brown Much of this story’s extensive body of criticism centers on its title character, whose name suggests he represents the average man. Brown makes his journey into the dark forest because he is curious and even tempted by the darker side of life. His brush with evil, however, leaves a permanently negative mark. Critics agree that whether the Black Mass really occurred or was dreamed, the impression on Brown is very real indeed.
At the beginning of the story, Brown appears confident in his ability to choose between good and evil, but once he stands before the Devil’s altar, he can no longer believe that good always prevails. He becomes a profoundly disillusioned man, who sees wickedness everywhere, even in those closest to him. Some critics have interpreted Brown’s resulting distrust and isolation as the result of a guilty conscience; he cannot forgive himself or others for hidden sinfulness. In the end, Brown is unable to accept the duality of human nature-that a person can possess both good and evil qualities—and for this he suffers.
The figure of the Devil in “Young Goodman Brown” appears as an older—though not ancient—man who carries a twisted, snake-like staff. He seems to resemble Brown somewhat, and it has been suggested that he is a reflection of the darker side of Brown’s nature. The Devil claims to know both Brown’s grandfather, who participated in the persecution of Quakers, and Brown’s father, who took part in an attack on an Indian village. Similar evil deeds were perpetrated in real life by Hawthorne’s ancestors, and the author’s alignment of his forefathers with the Devil suggests his feelings of guilt concerning his family history.
Goody Cloyse, the Minister, and Deacon Gookin
All three of these characters serve as dramatic examples of the wickedness and hypocrisy that may hide in the souls of those who appear most virtuous. These three are distinguished from among the crowd of townsfolk at the gathering because they represent a standard of piety and godliness that is destroyed for Brown by his experience. Both Goody Cloyse and Deacon Gookin were real people who were involved in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 1997.