Young Goodman Brown is one of the most famous short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This Penlighten article provides you with the summary and analysis of this short story.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, a celebrated American writer, was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825. He wrote his first literary work, titled ‘Fanshawe’, a novel, in 1828. He was a member of Brook Farm, a community that believed in transcendentalism. This line of thought says that various social institutions like organized religion and political parties are not effective in maintaining the purity of an individual, instead people should be ‘self-reliant’ in forming their value system. ‘Twice-told Tales’ is a collection of his short stories published in various periodicals. He also wrote romances that include The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860). Herman Melville gratefully dedicated his masterpiece Moby-Dick (1851) to Nathaniel Hawthorne, as he helped in writing it.
“Young Goodman Brown” is a short-story written by Hawthorne, which was first published in 1835 in New England Magazine, but anonymously. Later, it was published under his name in his collection of short stories titled Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. In this Penlighten article, we provide a summary and analysis of this short story.
Goodman Brown is a young man who stays in Salem village with his wife, Faith. They have been married since the last three months. He is going on a journey in the night. He bids adieu to Faith who is wearing a cap with pink ribbons. She pleads to him not to go until sunrise, as she is afraid of her own unpleasant dreams and thoughts when alone. He reiterates that he really needs to go on his journey on that night. Faith replies by blessing her husband and wishes all will be well until his return. Finally, Goodman Brown says goodbye to his wife, tells her to go to bed, and relax as there is no fear of any damage to her. He sets out on his journey on a dark, deserted road. As he trudges along, he himself starts feeling scared of any dangers confronting him in the dark, such as some Indian ambushing him from behind a tree or the devil himself.
Goodman Brown meets a man in regular clothing on his way. The man is in his fifties, and is closely similar to Goodman Brown in expression. He has a staff that resembles a black snake. The newly joined companion offers Goodman to hold his staff, if he is fatigued, to which he refuses. Goodman explains his family history to his companion, that his forefathers were devout Christians who have never ventured on the path he is venturing at present, and has always refrained from keeping bad company (that he is keeping now with the fellow traveler).
The older man replies to this by saying that he knew his father, grandfather, and also other Puritans. The older man says that he has many acquaintances in New England including the deacons of many churches, people in the government, and even the Governor. He says that they have done many unethical things with him, and they also regard him highly. Hearing this, Goodman Brown is very surprised and confused, but says that he would not be able to see the minister of the church in Salem village, eye to eye, if he goes any further with the older man. He also tells the older man that he would never break his wife’s heart, and wants to go back to the village just for her.
They then spot a woman limping in front of them, and Goodman Brown identifies her as Goody Cloyse, a pious lady who was his spiritual mentor along with the minister of the church and Deacon Gookin. He feels embarrassed to be caught in such a company by her and hides. The older man approaches her, and she immediately recognizes him as the devil. She is very pleased to see him and also reveals that she is a witch. She tells the devil that she is on her way to a ceremony in the forest hosted by the devil himself. The devil offers her his staff for her to reach there in a jiffy, and she accepts it.
Even on witnessing such hypocrisy on the part of Goody Cloyse, Goodman Brown still wishes to return back home for Faith. Again he hears the voices of two horse riders, whom he astonishingly recognizes to be the church minister and Deacon Gookin. But he still decides not to succumb to the devil for Faith’s sake and be loyal to God. He then hears a cacophony of voices, and distinguishes Faith’s voice among them. He cries out her name, and a pink ribbon comes flying towards him.
Seeing that the whole world including his spiritual mentors and even his wife Faith going to the devil, Goodman Brown becomes utterly hopeless, and despair and grief engulfs him. He now surrenders himself to the devil, and grabs his staff which speeds him up to the evil ceremony in the forest. Now Brown himself starts to look horrifying, in fact devilish. He reaches a rock kept at the center of the gathering, resembling an altar, and the foliage surrounding it are on fire. In the light of the fire, he recognizes the faces of many respectable and disrespectable people of his village, and even native Indian priests. He searches around for Faith and hopes she is not there in the crowd.
Everyone starts singing a hymn about the various sins of the world. Then a figure appears from above the fire in the rocks, and it calls out to bring forth the converts.
From amongst those gathered in the congregation, Brown recognizes his dead father and mother. His father encourages him to move forward, while his mother discourages him to do so. Before he could go back, the minister and Deacon Gookin push him forward. Then Goody Cloyse and Martha Carrier bring a female whose face is covered to hide her identity. The figure welcomes the converts to the evil communion. Brown recognizes that the veiled female is indeed his wife Faith, and he calls out to her to resist the devil.
Suddenly, he finds himself all alone in the forest. Whether this episode really happened or he fell asleep in the forest and dreamed it, remains a mystery. But what happens after that is very sad. He returns back to his village the next morning. When he comes across the church minister, Deacon Gookin and Goody Cloyse in his village, he views them with suspicion and doesn’t like them anymore. Dream or reality, the episode was a bad, an evil omen for him, which leaves him depressed, cynical, and an incredulous man.
He loses his respect for religion and spirituality, and cannot believe the greatness of saints and holy people. He becomes miserable and has a disturbed sleep, often waking up suddenly in the middle of the night. He also loses interest in praying to God. He finally dies in gloom after living for many years. All his progeny are present at his funeral; however they do not carve any hopeful, promising words on his tombstone.
He symbolizes an average young, religious man who has not quite grasped the essence of truth. He displays the dual nature of humans: the good and the evil. He is shown as the man who yields to evil once his faith is lost, and then looks at everyone with dubiousness. He symbolizes the people who become forever cynical after they encounter an unpleasant happening in life. He represents those people, who instead of coming out of a difficult situation by remembering and implementing the teachings that religion or spirituality and their mentors taught them, begins to question their validity in testing times. Hence, these people become absolutely purposeless in life.
Faith symbolizes a fine, well-mannered, and well-intentioned young lady. She remains loyal to her husband throughout. She is somebody her husband upholds. He believes in the purity of her character more than he believes in himself. She is symbolized as actual faith itself, which when lost leaves your soul with darkness and despair.
The old man or the devil symbolizes all the negativity and wickedness in the heart of man. He is shown as the older counterpart of Goodman Brown himself. This indicates that everyone has a darker side. When Brown first meets the old man, he is seen wearing decent clothes and seems to be like any other villager. He then brainwashes Brown to believe that all those whom he upholds in life have indeed sold their soul to him. The consequences of the devil’s encounter with the young man remain with him throughout his life, leaving him sad and gloomy. This symbolizes that in the beginning, evil or sin appears as okay and alluring, we first hesitate towards it, but eventually give in when our morals and values deteriorate, and as a result, evil takes it toll on us and makes us unhappy.
These are shown as devout Christians who guide people. They act as role models of a society, standing for righteousness and virtuousness. When the role models become corrupt, the society loses its faith in goodness.
God manifests himself in everybody, in the form of goodness, talent, and merit. He resides in everyone’s heart and soul. Everybody has something or the other that’s good in them. Faith in God, thus, translates to finding something good in people, finding something to appreciate in someone. When there is no faith in the goodness in people, a person has nothing to uphold. He, thus, embraces depression and becomes devoid of joy and enthusiasm. This is what happened to young Goodman Brown.
The writer also conveys that although we have soaked in principles, values, and moral lessons from our mentors, to completely imbibe them, we should reflect on them and implement them in life. This will lead us to believe in their validity. Instead, we idolize the mentors themselves, and when they stoop to corruption, we are disillusioned. Even if our role models have displayed bad behavior, we still believe in the morality of our loved ones. But everything appears hopeless when our loved ones betray us and join hands with evil. Thus, instead of basing our value system on what somebody else is following, we should preserve them in trying times even if others seem to be turning immoral.
From being a pious, spiritual man, Brown loses faith one day, becomes a pessimist, and dies a depressed man. The story underlines the importance of having unshakable faith in God and how it plays a crucial role in life. Doubt can act as a virus and eat you up, make you porous, spreading its venom inside you. When you part with faith, you make space for negativity (devil) to creep in your mind. A person walking on the spiritual path is always tested for his faith. Only unshakable faith can save them. The consequences of leaving your faith halfway can lead you to misery.
Even though the people around Brown were good and pious, he couldn’t believe their goodness because he was in doubt and lacked faith. Although he had a good, kindhearted wife, children, and even grandchildren (and thus a lot of love surrounded him), he couldn’t enjoy his life.
All in all, “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne makes a good read, replete with symbolism and meaning.