Symbolism and Theme in "The Young Goodman Brown"
By Jimmy Maher
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Young Goodman Brown" is presented as an allegory of the danger inherent in abandoning one's Christian faith, even for one evening. As such, the story absolutely overflows with symbolism. There is intentionally not a great deal of subtlety in these symbols, as Hawthorne clearly wants them to be obvious to even the least attentive reader. A thoughtful reading of the story, however, particularly the rather melancholy last few paragraphs, reveals deeper shades of meaning and irony than one might initially expect. Before exploring these intriguing depths, I will describe Hawthorne's use of striking symbols to illustrate the story's more superficial meaning.
In the first paragraph, we learn that Goodman Brown is departing from his wife, Faith, to spend a night in the woods. Her name is no accident, as she will represent Brown's religious conviction throughout the tale. She calls for him to remain with her, but Brown is determined to go his own way. It is sunset as he sets off, and the evening will get steadily darker up until the climactic scene of the story, just as the light of God steadily fades from Brown's heart. He wanders away into the woods, whose dark, tangled ways and poor visibility represent the loneliness and confusion of the Godless life. There he meets the devil, whose identity is communicated to the reader through the snakelike staff he carries. Hawthorne describes the devil as looking quite similar to Brown himself, and of having the air of someone who would be completely at ease in virtually any situation or company. This is telling, for Christian, and particularly Puritan, theology emphasizes that the devil's natural domain is here in the real world, and that he can thus easily corrupt anyone who grows too attached to life here on the material plane. There is also black irony to be found in this initial conversation between Brown and the devil. When the devil asks why Brown is late, Brown replies that "Faith kept me back awhile" (404).
Brown now makes a rather feeble attempt to turn away from sin and return to Faith. The devil urges him onward, however, telling him "We are but a little way in the forest, yet" (405), and convincing him that there will still be the opportunity to turn back after hearing the devil out. Brown's Puritan faith, however, should remind him that even the slightest flirtation with the ungodly life is perilous. Brown unfortunately appears to already be in the devil's power, who now begins reeling off a list of allegedly righteous men and women, both personal acquaintances and public figures, who are actually in his power, carrying sin in their hearts. The devil also claims that Brown's own father and grandfather fell under his spell, explaining that the brutal acts they committed in the name of God were in fact the work of the devil. Here we see the first foreshadowing of some subtler shades of meaning in the story, which we will further explore a bit later.
After the pair meet Goody Cloyse and Brown learns that this upstanding woman has also fallen into sin, he makes another attempt to resist the devil's pull. His language is one again heavily couched in symbolism. "Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?" (407). The devil now disappears, and Brown hides from the approaching minister and deacon to eavesdrop on their conversation. The light of heaven does not shine upon these two figures, for they have chosen to walk in the darkness of sin. Alone again, Brown looks up to heaven to pray, but soon finds his view obscured by a black cloud which seems to contain the voices of many sinners. Hawthorne here again demonstrates the danger of allowing the world and those in it, even those one loves, to become a distraction and so blind one's eyes to heaven. It is, however, only when Brown hears Faith's voice being swept along in the crowd that he finally surrenders to the darkness. In yet another double entendre, he cries that "My Faith is gone!" (408).
Brown now leaves the path to run wildly through the woods. Here Hawthorne illustrates that once one leaves the path of righteousness it is hard to find it again even if one desires to, for the woods of sin are all darkness and confusion. Brown arrives inevitably at the witches' coven, yet seemingly saves his soul at the pivotal moment by appealing directly to heaven. The coven instantly disappears, and Brown makes his way back to town as a free man. Yet the last three paragraphs end the story on a note of ambiguous melancholy, for Brown returns to his village a bitter, fearful man who is forevermore suspicious of the religious purity of those around him. What had seemed to be a black-and-white religious allegory of sin and redemption does not have the happy ending we might have expected, even though the protagonist of the piece has done what would seem to be the right thing within the context of the moral universe of the tale. What point is Hawthorne making here?
We might find clues in Hawthorne's own family history. Like Goodman Brown, Hawthorne was born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts. Nathaniel Hawthorne was descended from one John Hawthorne, a judge who had presided over the infamous witch trials there. Two of the fallen women mentioned in the story, Goodies Cloyse and Cory, had been sent to execution for witchcraft during that time. I know of no documented evidence regarding the author's thoughts or possible guilt over the activities of his ancestors, but Goodman Brown certainly has reason to feel a certain amount of familial shame for events of the past.
"I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so
smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a
pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King
Philip's war." (405)
I believe Hawthorne is making a point here about the dangers of unconsidered, self-righteous faith and the intolerance and cruelty to which it can lead. Ironically, this is the very sort of religiosity one might see the tale as promoting with a cursory reading.
The devil in the story might be a much more clever fellow than Brown ever suspects. By sending him a false vision of the many good people around him engaged in a terrible ritual, he plants the seeds of suspicion and doubt in the young man's mind. Brown returns to his village believing he has rejected the devil, but he has in fact embraced him. His relationships with both the good people of his town and with God have been spoiled forever.
When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and
with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-
like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then
did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon
the gray blasphemer and his hearers. (411)
Just like those who perpetuated the non-fictional atrocities in Salem, Goodman Brown now looks for the devil behind every bush and in the hearts of all those around him, never recognizing that his own soul is now hopelessly corrupt and blind to the light and goodness of God.
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.