Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story ‘Young Goodman Brown’ is now regarded as one of his greatest works of short fiction. This powerful tale about good and evil, Puritanism and temptation, is full of revealing quotations which help to put across the story’s overarching ‘message’.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the quotations from Hawthorne’s story, unpicking some of the most emblematic quotations from the text and exploring how they shed light on some of its central themes.
‘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.’
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.
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 (such as we find in John Milton’s 1667 poem Paradise Lost), 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: ‘This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.’ 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’?
‘And if I convince thee not, thou shalt turn back.’
These words are spoken by the old man whom Goodman Brown meets on his way into the forest. The quotation invites us to question whether Young Goodman Brown really could turn back and, if not, what impels him onwards towards the black mass. Hawthorne’s story asks us to ponder when we become ‘corrupted’ or tainted by evil. Has Young Goodman Brown already been ‘infected’ by it? Could he ever have turned back and gone home?
Note how his wife, Faith, had already tried and failed to persuade him to stay home that night and sleep in his own bed. This fact, and the curious resemblance between this old man and Goodman Brown himself, suggest that Young Goodman Brown’s mind is already made up.
‘My Faith is gone!’
This is a phrase which obviously carries a double meaning here. Brown utters this exclamation when he spies his own wife, Faith, among the ‘worshippers’ at the Black Mass in the woodland clearing. But ‘Young Goodman Brown’ is among other things an allegorical tale, and this quotation also cleverly hints at Brown’s loss of faith – in humanity, at the very least, although his Christian outlook will never be the same again.
However, Hawthorne cleverly has Faith disappear shortly after this, and when Brown arrives at the mysterious perversion of the church that has been set up in the forest clearing, he does not see his wife among the ‘congregation’. Goodman Brown thus has doubts again: perhaps he was mistaken? Hope creeps back into his heart, hope that Faith may be saved after all.
‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, Devil; for to thee is this world given.’
Along with the quotation mentioned above, this line from Goodman Brown after he discovers Faith is ‘all through the wilderness’ of the forest represents a turning-point, and confirms that he has left his ‘Faith’ behind in more ways than one.
‘It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power – than my power at its utmost – can make manifest in deeds.’
This is a significant quotation in Hawthorne’s story because it suggests that Goodman Brown – and by extension, all human beings – become tainted by evil as soon as they ‘know’ it intimately. Once one has lifted the rock and looked beneath at what is crawling about, one can never unsee it, and even though Brown may turn back from the Black Mass, it is too late. He has had the veil lifted from his eyes.
‘Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?’
When Hawthorne’s third-person narrator asks this question, he brings out the latent ambiguity of the story’s plot. Has Brown, like Rip Van Winkle, fallen asleep outside his village – but rather than returning to find he has been asleep for years, he has instead become changed by a vivid and intense dream he had in the forest?
Most of us have probably had dreams that are so powerful at the time that it takes us a while, after we wake up, to forget them and for them to stop colouring our view of the world and people around them. Is this what has happened to Brown? Or did the Black Mass in the forest really happen? Even Hawthorne’s ‘omniscient’ narrator cannot answer this question for us.
‘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.’
The closing words of the story seem like a good place to conclude this pick of the most important quotations from Hawthorne’s tale. The narrator’s words sum up the miserable life which Goodman Brown lived once he had tasted of sin, but they raise some interesting questions which are worth pondering.
Is the ‘moral’ of Hawthorne’s story, then, that we should not be tempted by sinful things, because even a little taste of them can taint the good things in life for us? Is Brown’s disgust at the sinfulness he detects in his fellow villagers really just a reflection of his own sin, or his weakness and willingness to be tempted by it, even just once?