By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Young Goodman Brown’ (1835) is one of the most famous stories by the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Inspired in part by the Salem witch craze of 1692, the story is a powerful exploration of the dark side of human nature. How Hawthorne loads his story with such power is worthy of some closer analysis, but before we get there, you can read ‘Young Goodman Brown’ here. Let’s begin with a summary of the story’s plot.
‘Young Goodman Brown’: plot summary
In the village of Salem one evening, a young man named Goodman Brown bids farewell to his wife, Faith. Faith wants him to stay with her, but Goodman Brown says he needs to travel tonight. When he leaves her, he vows to himself that he will be good after his business is done tonight.
He meets an old men dressed in ‘grave and decent attire’, as he is travelling on the road. This man has a staff in his hand which resembles a snake. Sensing his young companion is weary, the man offers Goodman Brown the staff but Goodman Brown declines. Indeed, he has honoured his promise to meet with the man tonight, but he has misgivings about it, and wants to turn back and go home. He is a good Christian, and his ancestors were good Christians, and he doesn’t want to get involved.
The man with the staff responds by saying that he knew Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather as well as numerous other high-profile Christians in the state, including the governor himself.
Goodman Brown asks how he will be able to look his minister in the face if he goes on with the business they have planned. This amuses the older man, although when Goodman Brown expresses his fears concerning his wife, Faith, the man is more sympathetic, and reassures him that Faith will come to no harm.
As they walk deeper into the woods, Goodman Brown recognises Goody Cloyse, the old woman who taught him religious instruction when he was a child. As she is well-respected back in his village, he doesn’t want her to recognise him and see him with the strange man with the staff, so he tells the older man that he will come off the path until they have passed the woman.
From the trees, Goodman Brown is astonished when the older man, upon reaching Goody Cloyse, taps her on the shoulder with his snake-staff, and she recognises him as ‘the Devil’. It turns out she is actually a witch (she even cackles) and is accompanying the man to their sabbath! The two of them talk of young Goodman Brown, whom they will be initiating into their ‘communion’ tonight. Goodman Brown watches as the woman takes the man’s staff and promptly vanishes. He then rejoins the man on the path, shocked by what he has witnessed.
They continue on for a while, but then Goodman Brown has second thoughts again, and sits down, determined not to go any further. But the older man tells him he will think better of it. Two riders approach, who are clearly also involved in the ‘deviltry’ of the night, and as Goodman Brown and his companion walk on, they hear a woman lamenting, and then a scream.
A pink ribbon floats through the air to him, such as his wife Faith wore. ‘My Faith is gone!’ Goodman Brown cries.
Realising all hope is lost, he becomes almost possessed by demonic despair and powers on through the forest, laughing wildly. He stumbles into a clearing in the woods, where a black mass or witches’ sabbath appears to be taking place, featuring many people he recognises, including Deacon Gookin. He then sees a veiled figure, who turns out to be his wife, Faith, who is a member of the sinful community gathered there. Blood is presented in a bowl, preparatory to the ‘baptism’ initiating the new converts. However, Goodman Brown resists, before staggering against a rock.
The next morning, he returns to Salem village, and everyone from the witches’ sabbath is acting as usual: Goody Cloyse is catechising a child, and Deacon Gookin is praying, while Faith welcomes her husband with joy. We are led to doubt whether what he witnessed the night before actually happened.
Was it all a dream? Either way, he becomes a sterner man thereafter, very ‘distrustful’, seeing sin everywhere. He becomes distant from his own wife. The story ends years in the future, with the narrator telling us that when Goodman Brown died, his neighbours ‘carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.’
‘Young Goodman Brown’: analysis
Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, thought ‘Young Goodman Brown’ was ‘deep as Dante’ in its exploration of the darker side of human nature.
The story is remarkable in its depiction of evil not least because it raises interesting questions about what it means to ‘become’ or ‘know’ evil. Young Goodman Brown actually resists the initiation in the woodland clearing, involving the blood-baptism, but the story suggests that this doesn’t matter: he has still come to recognise evil and has thus been initiated into its ways.
If it’s true that the only two kinds of person who are wholly obsessed with evil are the very bad and the very good (in the sense of being puritanical about making sure everyone else is as ‘good’ as they are), then ‘Young Goodman Brown’ is as much a cautionary tale about being lured over to the ‘dark side’, because even if you don’t end up embracing it, it will already have embraced you. The Puritan is as possessed by ‘evil’ as the devil-worshipper they condemn; they’re just possessed in different ways.
In other words, Goodman Brown is clearly drawn to the world of sin and witchcraft, as his meeting with the older man with the snake-staff (the ‘serpent’ summoning the satanic snake from the Garden of Eden, of course, which tempted Eve) indicates. Once he has made the decision to go down to the woods tonight he was always going to be in for a big surprise.
The twist, of course, is that in leaving Faith (his wife) behind, he finds Faith again, in the woodland black sabbath, where she is at first veiled and then revealed to him. (Calling her ‘Faith’, by the way, is an inspired touch by Hawthorne; it was a popular woman’s name among Puritans, but it resonates with obviously symbolic significance in this story about faith and sin.)
‘Young Goodman Brown’, then, is a highly symbolic and suggestive story about the nature of evil and also the nature of puritanism: once the veil has been lifted, Young Goodman Brown sees evil everywhere, even where it may well not actually exist.
This last part is important: although Hawthorne leaves some room for ambiguity, and the narrator himself seems uncertain, if Goodman Brown did merely dream the events of the witches’ sabbath, that raises further questions. He already suspects those in authority around him, those who teach religion to the village children or who dutifully pray, of secretly harbouring evil desires and performing dark deeds. His dream was merely an enacting of these (paranoid) suspicions.
But his conviction that the dream was real, and that his wife, his minister, Goody Cloyse, and the others are all secretly marked by evil, suggests that extreme puritanism destroys one’s moral compass and leads to a life devoid of pleasure or meaning.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.