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Most criticism and reflection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” centers on the theme of good versus evil. Critics, also, debate interpretations of the main character’s consciousness; is Young Goodman Brown awake or dreaming? What is certain is that he lives and dies in pain because his belief in his righteousness leads him to isolate himself from his community. It is, also, certain that Hawthorne’s interpretation of Brown’s “mid-life crisis” has uncertainty and leaves the reader with many different feelings about what and why certain things have happened. Hawthorne’s use of symbolism in his symbolic tale, “Young Goodman Brown”, causes the main character’s revelations about the sin within his community, his family and himself.
Young Goodman Brown’s journey into the forest is a kind of general, unstated story, representing man’s irrational force to leave faith, home, and security temporarily behind, for whatever reason, and take a chance with one trip into the woods of temptation. Young Goodman Brown’s curiosity to find out what lies in the depths of the forest disables his ability to have a naive outlook on life and changes his attitude, view on life, and the way he lives until his death. Young Goodman Brown has a mission to go into the forest and meet the devil. A mission that he begins out of curiosity and a yearning to see if the teachings of his childhood, his religion, and his culture, have given him enough will power to sufficiently look the devil in the face and return unchanged. The symbol of the forest, late at night, can be interpreted as the untamed regions of Young Goodman Brown’s heart, where the devil roams freely as he roams in the forest. The forest is the devil’s territory. When Young Goodman Brown ventures out into the forest for his battle with the devil, he finds that in the dark of the night, many of the well thought of, respectable members of his community and closest friends have already discovered this temptation and have lost or given into the devil. One such person was Goody Cloyse, the “old woman that taught me my catechism” (394). All that Young Goodman Brown considers moral and “good” in his life, he finds sinning in the forest. Seeing these various members of the town from which he came doing this evil deed torments his mind and, in turn, destroys his perception of practically everything in his life.
A “good man” in Hawthorne’s day was a person of proper ancestry. Hawthorne uses this very way of the times to take advantage of Young Goodman Brown in his conference with the devil. Goodman Brown claims that he is from a family of upright and moral men that would never go into the forest on a trip such as the one he is currently taking when he says “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs; and shall I be the first of the name Brown that ever took this path and kept–” (392). The devil then informs him that this is not true and lets Goodman Brown in on the secret that they, too, had taken this same walk many a night. The devil disproves Goodman Brown’s beliefs that his family would never have participated in such an evil deed, by stating that “They (his family) were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we along this path, and returned merrily after midnight” (392). Hawthorne uses this concept of being from a good background and still going astray to criticize the way in which society at the times put so much emphasis on a person’s background to determine that person’s significance in society. With this, Hawthorne has mocked the tradition of Goodman Brown’s family background and his society’s view of honor by putting to shame his family’s past. However, the devil points to the painful truth of the past and the reality of the way in which people act in the present. This could be Hawthorne’s attempt to play upon the reader’s outlook to see the devil as evil and stand next to the “good man” and his fate.
Distraught, disappointed and confused, Goodman Brown leaves the company of the devil and his fellow townspeople. He calls for faith and hope from the heavens crying aloud “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (395). Hawthorne uses Faith as another important symbol in this short story. Faith is Goodman Brown’s wife. Faith, and Goodman Brown’s relation to it, and to her, is the key that leads the reader to the story’s meaning. One believes in certain things in order to understand those that cannot necessarily or easily be proven for a fact. Without belief or faith, it is difficult to understand the nature of sin. Faith is the belief that allows and gives power to the human mind and allows it to understand what is unexplainable and incomprehensible. With faith, one tends to overlook certain facts such as the evil that was present within Goodman Brown’s community. However, when this faith and trust has been broken the evil in the community that Goodman Brown did not see before now reveals itself because he no longer has faith. When Young Goodman Brown went into the forest, he left his inhibitions and consciousness of what other people think of him behind in the village. Therefore, allowing him to be able to “see” the things his naiveté, upbringings, and faith blinded him from before. Goodman Brown’s venture into the forest is a departure from Faith, not only faith itself but, also, from his wife. When Goodman Brown meets the devil, he apologizes for being late. He states, “Faith kept me back a while” (391). His faith tries to keep him from the evil he will see, but literally, it is wife Faith. When Goodman Brown calls to heaven for his faith, he sees “something flutter lightly down through the air and catch on the branch of a tree”(396). What he sees are Faith’s pink ribbons from her hair. He, also, hears screaming and possibly her voice. He screams in despair, “My Faith is gone! There is no good on earth; sin is but a name” (396). At this point in the story, Goodman Brown gives up, begins to realize the realities in life, and loses his faith in humanity.
Goodman Brown never recovers from the scenes and experiences of that dark night. He continues to live with his loss of faith in himself, his wife, whom he, also, saw in the forest, and his community. It is Goodman Brown’s ability to perceive things from an actual sense of reality, his awareness of the separation of what is actually going on around him, and the way in which everyone portrays their lives as being that drives Goodman Brown to be a miserable man for the rest of his life. Instead of making the effort of sympathy and love to unite himself with others, Brown turns and pushes himself away from them forever; having lost his sense of ability for compassion, he cannot live without certainty. Goodman Brown’s, once only way of living, by faith alone, which was taught to him from his Puritan teachings, has not prepared him for the sin in the world. Being unable to deal with this new realization of sin turns Young Goodman Brown into a stern, judging, distrustful, dark man who never recovers his faith.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.
Ed. R. V. Cassill and Richard Bausch. Shorter 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. 390-399.
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