“Young Goodman Brown,” initially appearing in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) as both a bleak romance and a moral allegory, has maintained its hold on contemporary readers as a tale of initiation, alienation, and evil. Undoubtedly one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most disturbing stories, it opens as a young man of the town, Goodman Brown, bids farewell to his wife, Faith, and sets off on a path toward the dark forest. Brown’s journey to the forest and his exposure to life-shattering encounters and revelations remain the subject of speculation. Although his meeting with the devil is clear, the results remain ambiguous and perplexing. When viewed as a bildungsroman, it is one of the bleakest in American fiction, long or short. Rather than an initiation into manhood, Brown’s is an initiation into evil.
Much of the power of the story derives from the opening scene of missed chances: Faith, introduced in the second sentence and given the first words of dialogue, leans out the window, her pink ribbons fl uttering, and entreats her husband to stay. Brown, however, although he continues to think of returning, is determined to depart on this dark road. Almost instantly, he—and the reader—become enveloped in the darkness and gloom of the forest. The narrator equates the dreariness with both solitude and evil, and the aura of doom pervades the story. Along the way Brown meets a man who looks curiously like Brown’s father and grandfather; that this traveler is the devil is clear from his snakelike stick and evident power to assume different shapes. The traveler reveals his role in helping Brown’s Puritan ancestors commit crimes against Quakers and Indians. Brown protests that his family has traditionally revered the principles of Christianity, but the traveler provides numerous examples of his converts across all of New England, in both small town and state positions, in the fields of politics, religion, and the law. That Brown himself is from Salem suggests Hawthorne’s fascination with the Puritan guilt of his—and our—own forefathers manifested in other short stories such as “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” a tale about the Puritan obsession with witchcraft.
Next Brown hides in the forest, demonstrating his hypocrisy, as he sees Goody Cloyse, a pious townswoman, walking along the dark trail. She and the traveler openly discuss her witchcraft, and when Brown leaves his hiding place, he marvels at his memory of Goody Cloyse teaching him his catechism when he was a boy. Again Brown thinks of returning home to Faith, but instead he still hides in the forest, recognizing many of the townspeople passing through and hearing that tonight’s forest meeting will be attended by people from Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as Massachusetts. Just as Brown thinks he can resist the devil and emerge from his hiding place, he hears a scream that sounds like Faith’s, and a pink ribbon fl utters to his feet.
From this point on, Brown himself becomes a grotesque figure, throwing himself with wholehearted if somewhat hysterical and despairing eagerness into the center of the darkness illuminated by the blazing fires of the meeting, clearly an image of hell. He recognizes all the most respected folk of the state unabashedly mingling with common thieves, prostitutes, and even criminals. The dreadful harmony of all these voices joined together in devil worship reaches a crescendo as the converts are brought forth: Among them, dimly recognized, are Brown’s father, mother, and wife. The devil assures the assembly that everyone has secretly committed crimes, from those of illicit sex to those of murdering husbands, fathers, and illegitimate babies. Indeed, says the devil, the whole earth is “one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot.” Evil, not good, he asserts, is the nature of humankind.
As do Adam and Eve, Brown and Faith stand on the edge of wickedness: Brown screams to Faith to resist the devil, and with these words the nightmare ends, Brown awakening against a rock. The narrator asks, Was his experience really a dream? Whether or not we believe in the reality of Brown’s experience; the narrator affirms that it clearly foreshadows Brown’s altered life: Henceforward he is a dour and disillusioned man who sees no good and trusts in no one. In just such a way did the Salem witch trials effectively bring about the collapse of Puritanism, yet the story resonates long afterward: We as readers understand that we are the mythical descendants of Young Goodman Brown. Why does Brown ignore Faith’s warnings? Do we interpret the tale as one of infidelity? Of Christian hypocrisy? Of colonial history? If Brown, as an American Adam, looked upon Eden and found it wanting, do we inherit his frightful knowledge? Or can we interpret it as a cautionary tale, one whose lessons can benefit us as we live our modern lives? More than a century and a half later, Hawthorne’s story continues to beguile us with its gloomy aura and subtly ambiguous theme.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” In Tales and Sketches, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce. New York: Library of America, 1982.
Newman, Lea B. V. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Hawthorne. New York: Macmillan, 1979.