This essay focuses on the link between symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, the main protagonist’s character development and author’s beliefs.
With the author being born in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne’s short story is bound to be somewhat mystical. Salem’s tradition of witchcraft and its persecution is well known, and Hawthorne’s family is deeply intertwined with the famous trials. One of his ancestors was in fact a judge, who oversaw the execution of people accused of witchcraft. Perhaps this is the reason why Hawthorne never officially joined any kind of church, and even changed his name as not to appear to be related to his great-great-grandfather. However, he was not an atheist per se. His short stories are full of religious symbols and thoughts. Written at the height of the Second Great Awakening, Young Goodman Brown is a good example of this.
The story itself is divided into multiple parts, each one being something of a “stage” of Goodman’s state of mind. Its development is quite rapid and clearly described for the reader to see.
In the beginning, one can see Goodman as an upstanding citizen and a proper, well-mannered husband. The story starts off by his departure, and immediately there’s an act of leaving his wife, Faith. The name given to the spouse by the author suggests that is it not just a coincidence, but a symbol. Symbol of our protagonist’s inner conflict, a fight in his own mind. He sets off onto a difficult journey, leaving the safe haven of Salem and proceeding to enter the dark, gloomy woods.
The story continues, and becomes darker and darker. Not just literally (because Goodman left at dusk), figuratively as well. Hawthorne describes our protagonist’s feelings of uneasiness, and in his mind, he remarks: “There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree”. While this might point to author’s dislike for the Indians, a common point of view of that era, there’s the notion of devil that’s intriguing. This also forms a clear transition between Goodman’s familiar hometown and the dangerous area ahead, making way for the next “stage”. Shortly after this, our protagonist is accompanied by a mysterious figure. Together, they set off to attend a covenant. These were important religious gatherings, a Puritan tradition. As they progress, though, the mysterious man reveals himself to be a powerful, even supernatural being, bearing a resemblance to the Devil himself. Reader can again spot this by author’s frequent usage of symbols, such as the shady traveller’s snake-like cane. In a biblical context, snake is thought to be an embodiment of Satan. Not only this, but the listing of ways in which he helped his ancestors perform acts of evil, makes it clear who’s this figure meant to represent. This part also points to the author’s shameful family history.
As they progress through the dark forest, the Devil presents Goodman with multiple people, all of whom are his acquaintances. Goodman has a chance to see them in a different light. Perhaps not a favourable one, though.
First one is Goody Cloyse, his old catechism teacher. She instantly recognizes the Devil, addressing him as “Your Worship”. Their conversation points at her involvement in the evil convent, and her being a witch. Again, this is shown through symbols such as broom, the juice of smallage, and cinquefoil, and wolf’s bane, fat of a new-born babe etc. All of these were commonly linked with witchcraft and acts of sorcery. Shocked by this revelation, Goodman starts to rethink his attitude to others. He was quite sure Goody Cory was an upstanding, pious woman, just like his wife. Thought of people having a dark side never occurred to him before. He remarks, “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?” Goodman’s strong connection to faith starts to falter.
Next up are the local minister and deacon Gookin, important church figures of Salem. But their comments reveal that this strange convent (which they too are attending) is not limited to people from Salem. “They tell me that some of our community are to be here from Falmouth and beyond, and others from Connecticut and Rhode Island, besides several of the Indian powwows, who, after their fashion, know almost as much deviltry as the best of us.”, remarks the deacon. They also hint at the event of a new female member being taken into the communion. This makes Goodman anxious. However, he remains strong, resisting the devil once again, “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” cried Goodman Brown.
This doesn’t last very long. As the protagonist gets closer to the shady gathering, he starts to hear muffled voices of this neighbours and acquaintances. Among the mass of stranger’s sounds, there’s one quite familiar to him. It’s his wife, Faith, being convinced to join the communion. Her voice bears signs of distress and sorrow. This triggers Goodman Brown’s worst fear. “”My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name.” These are the words the author uses for his hero’s decision to completely renounce his faith. Brown proceeds to pick up the devil’s cane, again a symbolic choice he was faced with multiple times before.
Since this moment, Brown turns into a different man. Basically, a complete opposite of what he used to believe in. He fully embraces devil, and proudly declares, “Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. 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.”. At this point, he’s ascended above the common “devilry”, fully embracing Satan. In a trance, moving faster than any mortal human, he reaches the gathering. Gathered around a fire, he sees familiar faces of his neighbours, illuminated by the flames. Among theme were people of various stranding, sex and profession. However, Faith is nowhere to be seen. That is, until a voice calls out for new converts.
Once Goodman enters the scene, he’s immediately brought to a huge rock, where he’s supposed to be “baptized” – in devil’s own way. On his way he spots what he thinks are his parents, his dad encouraging him to go on, his mother trying to stop him. He’s unable to resist though.
The devilish figure appears once again, and proceeds to give a speech on all human’s faults and sins, mentioning not only men, but women – who to Goodman seemed as moral, pure beings, just like Faith. In this moment, he’s finally reunited with her, before the “altar”. Brown is trembling. His naïve idea that Faith is a pure being unable to sin, is shattered. The Devil greets them, “Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”, implying all men are in fact corrupt.
At this point, author reveals that everything between Brown’s departure and the devil’s baptism was in fact a dream. Goodman, however, becomes a changed man. Upon returning to Salem, he meets some of the people he saw in his dream. He tries to avoid them, remembering all their sins, and becoming distrustful. Even his wife, who rushed to meet him, wasn’t spared. From this day on, Goodman came to be a gloomy, paranoid, and anxious, and remained so until his last day.
One of the main themes of this short story is the repeating symbol of Satan. According to Marylin Appselof, Scottish folklore reveals that Satan was sometimes called Goodman or The Goodman. She also suggests that Goodman Brown was both a young man in Salem and the devil himself. (Appselof and Appselof 103) This is quite a valid statement. The battle of minds between Brown and the mysterious traveller, who happens to bear a significant resemblance to him, support her claim. Perhaps it was Hawthorne’s idea as well, “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man.” is a clear indication of that. The idea that a man is not influenced by some external force, such as the biblical Devil, and rather his own, inner demons is one of the possible criticisms and conclusions of this story.
Another subject which he criticizes would be Christianity, and its Puritan branch in particular. He set his story in Salem, the centre of Puritan faith. Things like communions were also central to Puritan system of faith, and the fact that this story take those traditions and twist them, make them appear scary and devilish. There is a factor of guilt in his story, especially during Brown’s first encounter with the devil. The number of despicable actions performed by his ancestors sheds a bad light on things such as witch trials, and murders in the name of God in general. Perhaps this was a way to express his regret and feelings of guilt which he felt.
In conclusion, it’s quite clear that Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown was meant to address some of the issues of society and religion. Perhaps Hawthorne wanted to point at the fact that we should face our fears and inner problems and resist our dark temptations or else we will never be able to find peace of mind and happiness.