One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most anthologized tales, “Young Goodman Brown” shares themes and techniques with much of his other work. Hawthorne’s probing of what might be called the psychology of sin (however secular are modern readings), expressed through his characteristic manipulations of symbolism, merge the tale with his other short stories, such as “The Birth-Mark” (1843) and “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance” (1850), as well as his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852. (Hawthorne’s short stories were written mostly before 1850, and his novels were written after that date.) Hawthorne’s ideas, moral vision, and artistry have established him as one of the nation’s greatest writers. The suggestive ambiguities in his fiction have made his work particularly amenable to treatment by the full range of modern critical perspectives.
The symbolic significance of places, times, names, and objects seems obvious in “Young Goodman Brown.” Salem is the dwelling place of family and community, religion and faith (“faith” the belief and “Faith” the woman). The name Goodman suggests “good man” (although it also had been an equivalent of “mister”). The surrounding wilderness is unknown, a place where one can easily wander from the straight and narrow path. In addition, the scenes in Salem occur during daylight, the scenes in the forest at night. In that dark forest, Brown discovers a prince of darkness (an apparent devil who looks like a man) who appears with his serpent cane as if he has been conjured into being by the word “devil.” Has Brown found in that darkness the light or the truth or an acceptable moral standard in that heathen wilderness? Does he remain a naive yet good man?
“Young Goodman Brown” is not, in fact, a simple religious parable about the undeniable evils of life. The statement that “evil is the nature of mankind,” after all, is spoken by the Devil (the prince of lies as well as the prince of darkness) in what may have been only Brown’s dream. “Young Goodman Brown” is a psychological tale about the impact of this partial truth upon a particularly susceptible mind. If this were not the case, Hawthorne need not have written the final page of the story nor have portrayed Brown in such a negative fashion. Should not the discoverer of truth be rewarded with a positive outcome? Hawthorne does not focus on universal evil or human hypocrisy. Rather, he criticizes Brown as an either/or thinker who never acknowledges the evil in himself. His own diabolical curiosity initially leads him to his appointment in the forest. The devil looks like Brown. After Brown exclaims “my Faith is gone!” he himself becomes “the chief horror of the scene.”
Initially, Brown seems aware that his mission is sinful, but eventually he perceives sin only in others. He becomes blind to goodness and avoids human contact. Like so many Hawthorne characters, he becomes a cold observer of life rather than a life-affirming participant. His sin is pride. As the story opens, he is innocent, young, and sheltered. He knows only good. When he sees Faith in the forest, however, he abruptly converts to a belief that only evil exists. Either attitude is simpleminded. He never envisions a complex life that is a mix of good and evil and which in any case must be lived.
What troubles Brown most in the nocturnal forest is “that the good shrank not from the wicked.” Even the pink of Faith’s ribbons is a mixture of white (purity) and red (associated with guilt and sin in the story). Brown’s propensity to think in terms of God or Satan, the flesh or the spirit, and good or evil has been described as typical of early Puritan New England. In this sense, Hawthorne has written a criticism of society like that of The Scarlet Letter.
Modern critics have interpreted “Young Goodman Brown” in many ways. The story as a critique of society stands out to some. To psychologically inclined readers, Brown journeys into the psyche. The village represents the superego, whereas the forest and darkness become equivalents of the Freudian id. The entire story becomes a portrait of one human mind that discovers the usually suppressed and disquieting reality of animal instinct.
Gender-conscious readers might see Brown’s problem as an inability to accommodate to women as complex individuals. He cannot reconcile the “red” fact of menstrual cycles with the “white” of hallowed motherhood. Faith’s own reality is “pink,” a color that for Brown can only mean a tainting of purity. Brown either “shrank from the bosom of Faith” for her supposedly evil nature or indulged his sexual appetites—since they do have a number of children. Readers may view “Young Goodman Brown” as literary self-revelation, because to write the story, Hawthorne had to distance himself, to observe the human lot just as Brown did. All these perspectives testify to the richness of the story.
Young Goodman Brown
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In the story "Young Goodman Brown", Nathaniel Hawthorne uses a dream to illustrate a young man’s loss of innocence, understanding of religion and his community. Through this dream, the main character Young Goodman realizes that the people that he surrounds himself with are not who he believes them to be. The story of “Young Goodman Brown” focuses on the unconscious mind. The characters in this short-story are able to represent the struggle of Young Goodman’s superego, ego, and id.
Representing the superego is Young Goodman’s wife Faith. Her name becomes a multi-layered metaphor. Hawthorne writes, "And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons on her caps while she called to Goodman Brown" (Kelly, 190). This statement suggests that Brown's wife’s name is symbolic. Faith is condensed to represent innocence, the Puritan religion and Brown’s consciousness. Since, young girls are often equated with pink. The pink ribbons in her hair serve to symbolize her innocence. When Brown meets the man in the woods he says, "Faith kept me back awhile" (Kelly, 191). In this case Faith represents the Puritan religion.
The next character is Young Goodman Brown himself. His name also becomes a multilayered metaphor. Being known as “young” represents Goodman Browns innocence and virtue. He is also condensed to represent his own consciousness. But, by leaving his wife, Faith, Young Goodman Brown is giving into the unconscious. "He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind" (Kelly, 191). Taking this path that closes behind him represents Young Goodman’s decent into the unconscious and his loss of innocence. On this journey he soon meets a man who is a condensation of several different factors. The man represents the devil, as well as Brown unconscious mind.
The next character is the man who Brown meets up with in the woods. This man is described as, "one who knew the world, and who would not have felt abashed at the governor's dinner table or in King William's court" (Kelly, 191). This man can be seen as the devil. He possesses features that illustrate him as the devil. For example his walking staff is described as having "the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent" (Kelly, 191-192).
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Being snake-like implies a connection with the devil, as well as characteristics such as being evil and untrustworthy. He also represents Goodman Brown’s id. The devil allows Goodman Brown to follow his desires and leave his wife and religion.
Brown’s forefathers are displaced with the devil as well. Brown begins the journey believing that his forefathers are innocent, good men, but the devil tells Brown that he has been, "…well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say" (Kelly, 192). Brown's forefathers become equated with the devil. The people of the town are also displaced as the devil. The devil tells Brown, "I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wince with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interest, The governor and I, too----But these are state secrets" (Kelly, 192-93). A specific person in the town that is displaced with the devil and Brown’s loss of innocence is Goody Cloyse. When Goody Cloyse is approached by the devil she accepts him, showing that she is well acquainted with him. When Goodman Brown witnesses this interaction between the devil and Goody Cloyse he says, “That old woman taught me my catechism” (Kelly 195). Brown’s catechism is brought up to represent his childhood and contrast with this loss of innocence. Brown learns that the minister and Deacon Gookin are also heading to the meeting with the devil. Brown learns that they too represent evil.
"But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon" (Kelly, 197). The pink ribbon falling from the sky represents Brown's realization that he is losing his innocence. Brown then cries, "My Faith is gone" (Kelly, 197). This word-play on the name Faith represents Brown’s realization that he is losing both his wife and his religion. At the end of the short-story the question is brought up as to whether the events of the night were a dream or reality. “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting” (Kelly, 202). Hawthorne then answers his own question. “Be it so if you will; but, alas! It was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown” (Kelly, 202). This realization that Goodman was only having a dream represents Goodman’s repression. The only way in which he can admit his desire to leave his wife, and religion is through a dream.
The symbolism throughout "Young Goodman Brown" represents many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the unconscious. Key concepts such as repression, displacement and condensation are apparent through the events that occur in the short-story. While the superego, ego, and id are represented through the characters and the Goodman Brown’s psyche.