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Themes in Young Goodman Brown
Moral and Religious Hypocrisy: Hawthorne reveals the weaknesses of blind faith in "Young Goodman Brown." In his repressive Puritan society, Goodman Brown looks to others for examples of purity and goodness—putting his faith in others and relying on them to support his beliefs. However, focusing on external representations of moral behavior is deceptive. Without personal convictions, Goodman Brown’s beliefs are easily corrupted. Moreover, Goodman Brown is forced to confront the dark, unacknowledged sides of his Puritan ways; he finally sees the blindness and hypocrisy of his society, but is too late to change.
The Nature of Good and Evil: Hawthorne explores the relationship between good and evil in “Young Goodman Brown” through the titular Brown’s excursion into the forest with an old man whom readers quickly realize is the devil. One of the main ways that the devil seeks to undermine Goodman Brown’s faith is to show him how the devil’s—and by extension “evil’s”— influence inhabits all levels of society and all things. Goodman Brown lacks an ability to cope with a world that is not distinctly good or evil, and the devil’s revelations cause the once pious Puritan to become cynical, miserable, and suspicious of everyone.
Themes Examples in Young Goodman Brown:
Young Goodman Brown
"And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” does not end on an uplifting note. Since he never spoke to Faith about his time in the forest, Goodman Brown has failed to recover and learn from his experience. This perpetuates the hypocritical and harmful traditions of Puritanism that led to his fall in the first place. These final words suggest that Goodman Brown’s “goodly” children and grandchildren will all suffer the same fate. This serves as a capstone on the theme of hypocrisy in the tale: those who cannot honestly look at and reflect on their own behaviors or speak realistically about temptation and sin will not be able to find inner peace and happiness.
"Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Readers may have wondered if Goodman Brown’s experience was simply a dream. However, even sinful dreams and thoughts count as sinful behavior in Puritanism. This means that Goodman Brown, in order to maintain appearances, cannot discuss this event with anyone because doing so could result in his being exiled from the community. He is therefore forced to live out his life in hypocrisy, infected by the knowledge that whether he sinned or dreamed he sinned, he suffers the same end—making his story a truly tragic one.
"Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Since the Puritan faith provides a binary worldview in which things are either good or evil with no middle ground, the devil uses this to his advantage. He claims that “Evil is the nature of mankind.” Notice though how he also criticizes Puritanism’s focus on appearances and external representations of faith. He states that since the Puritans “depend[ed] upon one another’s hearts,” they were unable to learn how to create a personal relationship with their morality that could give them the strength to understand that someone may commit sinful acts but not be entirely evil.
"They did so; and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Having placed so much of his faith in his wife, the climax of the story begins when Goodman Brown confronts his greatest fear: that his Faith (in both senses of the word) is corrupt. Also of note here is the atmosphere: Goodman Brown sees his Faith through the light of “hell-kindled torches.” This suggests that the light is not only evil but also supernatural. What Goodman Brown actually sees, therefore, may not necessarily be accurate. Instead of seeing a nuanced, complicated person capable of a mixture of good and evil, Brown can only see through his binary Puritan lens, which casts everything that is not completely righteous in a hellish light.
"Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
The devil’s words in this passage serve as a direct statement about the hypocritical nature of the Puritan faith. To paraphrase, he points out that what people claim to be true is not actually the case and that those who appear good and righteous are actually living in sin. The visual display of the congregation gives the devil an opportunity to reveal to Goodman Brown the hypocrisy of his Puritan community. Since Brown’s faith has been modeled on the behavior of others, rather than his own convictions, this provides the devil an easy challenge to Goodman Brown’s worldview.
"But he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought, when the minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms and led him to the blazing rock...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Since Goodman Brown’s notions of faith and morality come from external sources, he is paralyzed in this moment of confusion. For him, being moral means preserving the reputation and appearances of his family. However, the images of his father and mother give him conflicting commands regarding his path forward. Even though he no longer believes his family are moral people, he cannot bring himself to disown his family heritage in order to make his own choices. Since he cannot make his own choices, he is doomed to repeat the same mistakes, continuing a tradition of harmful hypocrisy.
"As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Since Hawthorne has revealed the forest to be a place full of sin, the presence of a “congregation” in the “heart of the solitary woods” reveals the pervasiveness of evil. A “congregation” typically refers to a group of people who gather for a church service, giving this word religious and moral connotations. While Puritan congregations try to cleave away their evil tendencies by appearing good to one another, this congregation in the dark woods further supports the idea that evil is an indelible part of human nature that will always find its place.
"The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Although Goodman Brown has just claimed that he should be feared as a sinful being, Hawthorne’s statement here suggests something more about the nature of good and evil: an external and internal nature. Goodman Brown considers evil as a supernatural, external idea found in the work of witches and devils. However, Hawthorne makes a point here that the more terrible “fiend” is the one that rages inside of us—a natural, human capacity for wickedness.
"Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Since Goodman Brown’s Puritan faith conveys a world of good versus evil without room for nuance or error, he decides to embrace evil after he realizes that he is a sinner. He cries out this famous quote to the wind, indicating that sin no longer strikes fear in him as it once did. Because he is a sinner, he figures he ought to be just as feared as other evil things. However, this extreme reaction suggests that he hasn’t learned how to cope with sin. He still functions through a Puritan lens of the world, which says that if he sins at all, then he is condemned to hell.
"There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
When Goodman Brown claims that “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name,” this statement supports how extreme his beliefs are. For him, the world consists of black and white, good and evil. Since his Faith (and his faith) are “gone,” he states that the world is inherently evil and that sin is the natural state of things. From a non-Puritan perspective, this logic makes little sense, but given the repressed nature of his society, Goodman Brown has no experience dealing with nuance nor understanding his own personal relationship between good and sinful behavior.
"What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
While the devil has revealed all the hypocrisy of Goodman Brown’s family, community, and his own ideas, Goodman Brown maintains a trust that his wife, Faith, is free of evil. It is this trust that keeps him from falling into sin. However, he still looks to another person rather than to his God or personal convictions. His actions reflect the Puritan tendency to seek external ideas of faith, particularly in the appearance of goodness, rather than pursuing personal, virtuous relationships between the self and a higher power.
"Being a stranger to you, she might ask whom I was consorting with and whither I was going...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Goodman Brown’s statement here shows how much value Puritans placed on appearances. Since he thinks this woman is a good Christian, he wants to avoid her seeing him with a stranger. This avoidance gives us insight into Goodman Brown and the Puritan faith: he’s more scared about being seen with a sinner by a member of his community than he is about actually walking in the forest and talking with the devil, that latter of which could affect the condition of his soul. Goodman Brown sees his own good behavior only through the eyes of others. Notice how this self-deception is also deepened by his immediate assumption that this respectable-looking woman is a good Christian.
"The governor and I, too. But these are state secrets..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
The devil’s purpose in telling Goodman Brown all of these “state secrets” is to emphasize the depths of his influence in Goodman Brown’s world. Since Goodman Brown considers certain people and places completely free of sin, the devil makes these claims to undermine his faith. However, the devil’s claims serve another purpose. The devil makes it clear that nothing is free of sinful influence or the potential for it. The Puritan worldview cannot accept such things, which forces them to hypocritically believe themselves and their institutions free from this influence. By maintaining a worldview that is cut and dry, there is no room for moral ambiguity and even less for forgiveness and tolerance.
"We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness.”..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Goodman Brown’s surprise that his family “never spoke of these matters” reveals an issue with the repressive nature of his faith. Because the Puritans judged one’s moral character on one’s outward appearance, to talk about morally ambiguous issues or individual failings was taboo. So, Goodman Brown has no experiences with moral nuance to draw on in this situation, forcing him to continue deluding himself by applying his all-too simplistic logic.
"I helped your grandfather..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Notice how the examples the devil chooses to share with Goodman Brown are particularly human. That is, crime and punishment as well as war are considered pervasive aspects of humanity. In a way, this normalizes the devil for Goodman Brown, as Puritans consider the devil to be a supernatural evil in order to make the difference between goodness and sin as clear as possible. Religion often justified such aspects of humanity as war and religious persecution, but that justification does not make them less evil—something the devil makes clear here by claiming his influence on those events.
"it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
The serpent staff alludes to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. This tale helps inform readers as to the man’s purpose. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived in a natural paradise. However, the devil, in the form of a serpent, tempted them with knowledge, eventually coaxing them into sin. The man and his staff not only draw a connection between Goodman Brown’s temptation and that of Adam and Eve but also blend evil with nature. The complexity of this association encourages readers to consider how the human capacity for sin and evil take root in the natural world.
"But no, no; 'twould kill her to think it. Well, she's a blessed angel on earth;..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Goodman Brown’s claim that Faith is so incapable of even thinking sinful thoughts that it would kill her reveals his worldview to be black and white, that people are either saints or sinners without any middle ground. However, he fails to look at his own actions. He thinks that he can endure one night of sin and then return to Salem and be good and faithful for the rest of his life. This lack of self-awareness creates conflict within Goodman Brown which will prove disastrous for him later in the story.
"Methought as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. ..." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Goodman Brown briefly considers the idea that Faith could know about his purpose for journeying into the woods, but he quickly dismisses the notion, stating that she is simply too good and pure to suspect him of any kind of evil intent. However, the repetition in “no, no” shows a small amount of suspicion on Goodman Brown’s part, as if he has to persuade himself that Faith couldn’t think such things. This is the first indication of the suspicion he has for his Puritan community and faith.
"And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap while she called to Goodman Brown...." See in text (Young Goodman Brown)
Hawthorne establishes the moral conflict at the beginning of the story: Goodman Brown can stay with his wife Faith, as she pleads for him to do, or he can journey into the woods. This conflict is especially notable because of his wife’s name: Goodman Brown has a conflict with “Faith,” which literally refers to his wife but can also serve as a symbol of his religious faith. By establishing this conflict early, Hawthorne shows readers that there are moral stakes to Goodman Brown’s journey: he appears to be choosing to leave his wife and his faith by staying in Salem.