The Symbolism of ‘Young Goodman Brown’ Explained

‘Young Goodman Brown’ is an 1835 short story by the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Inspired in part by the Salem witch craze of 1692, the story contains a number of powerful symbols. But how should we analyse the symbolism of the story?

Let’s take a closer look at the most important symbols in ‘Young Goodman Brown’. But first, a brief reminder of the story’s plot:

In the village of Salem, a young man named Goodman Brown leaves home one night to honour his promise to meet with a man, although he experiences misgivings about keeping the appointment. After meeting a number of his fellow villagers as he journeys through the woods, Goodman Brown eventually comes to a clearing where a witches’ sabbath is taking place. Among the sabbath is his own wife, Faith.

The next morning, he sees the same villagers he had witnessed the night before, but now they are carrying on with their ordinary, upstanding lives. Goodman Brown becomes withdrawn from the community, and even starts to doubt whether what he witnessed actually took place, or whether it was all a dream.

Symbolism of Thresholds.

‘Young Goodman Brown’ begins with Goodman Brown setting forth from his home but pausing, ‘after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.’ This casual reference to the threshold of the Browns’ household ushers in a number of liminal spaces and times in the story: it is ‘sunset’ (the threshold between day and night) when Brown leaves home, and what he experiences in the liminal space of the wood is, in many ways, a troubling of the boundary between dream and reality.

Pink Hair Ribbons.

Faith’s pink hair ribbons suggest her innocence. When we first meet her at home, she is allowing the wind to play with her pink ribbons: a symbol of carefree youth and playfulness, or a sign that she is wayward and prone to being manipulated? Later, when her husband sees one of her pink ribbons in the wood, he exclaims, ‘My Faith is gone!’: a phrase which obviously carries a double meaning here. After this moment, the (lost) pink ribbon symbolises Faith’s lost innocence.

Snake Symbolism.

Early on in the story, when Goodman Brown meets the old man carrying a staff, Hawthorne gives us a clue that all is not all as it seems:

But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore 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. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.

Snakes have a longstanding association with deceit, temptation, and evil: it was the serpent in the Garden of Eden which tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the Forbidden Fruit, thus bringing about the Fall of Man. According to a later tradition (the Bible never actually mentions this detail), the serpent was Satan in disguise, and of course, when Goody Cloyse recognises the old man, she identifies him as ‘the Devil’ himself.

This passage also gives us one of the first clues that the story’s details are ambiguous. Is the appearance of the staff as a ‘living serpent’ really just a trick of the eye or ‘ocular deception’? Or is there something truly supernatural going on? Or is this an early sign that Young Goodman Brown’s mind is unsound and he is ‘seeing things’?

The Old Man.

Note that the old man whom Goody Cloyse later claims is ‘the Devil’ is ‘about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features.’

Is this old man a foreshadowing of what Old Goodman Brown will be like? It is notable that the two men’s faces bear a similar expression: perhaps the mark that evil leaves upon the face.

Symbolism of Salem.

The historic town of Salem in Massachusetts is synonymous with witchcraft, because of the notorious Salem witch trials which took place there in 1692-93. They are called ‘witch trials’ but really the event was a form of mass hysteria which saw neighbour turn upon neighbour, and the authorities of Salem indulge the hearsay of a group of teenagers.

During this short period of hysteria, 141 people were arrested and 19 were hanged; another was crushed to death. Hawthorne’s story taps into the air of superstition but also religious hypocrisy surrounding seventeenth-century Salem. This was a culture Hawthorne knew well, and one of his ancestors, John Hathorne, was even involved in the witch trials at Salem.

One can allow evil to taint one’s soul by purporting to stand against it: many people, including those involved in the Salem trials, have committed terrible acts against other human beings but have considered themselves ‘good’ people because they are convinced they have right on their side.

Symbolism of Character Names.

Many of the names in the story are charged with symbolism, too. ‘Goodman’ was a polite term of address in Puritan New England, and served the same function as ‘Mister’. But of course, in a story which is about the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, Brown’s epithet takes on an added significance. Is he a ‘good man’ for resisting the witches’ sabbath, or has he still allowed himself to become corrupted by evil so that it will destroy the rest of his and his wife’s lives together?

Calling Goodman Brown’s wife ‘Faith’ is an inspired touch, because this was a popular woman’s name among Puritans, but it resonates with obviously symbolic significance in this story about faith and sin. When Goodman Brown exclaims, ‘My Faith is gone!’, the symbolism of Brown’s wife’s name becomes more manifest.

‘Young Goodman Brown’ as Allegory.

For these reasons, Hawthorne’s story is often interpreted as an allegory about religious faith. Brown symbolically as well as literally leaves his ‘Faith’ behind when he ignores his wife’s entreaties and leaves home for the night to go into the dark, mysterious wood.

When he renounces his ‘faith’ in this way, he makes himself susceptible to the powerful lure of evil, and even though he may rediscover his ‘Faith’ later on, it has been changed – and tainted – forever.

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