‘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 deals with a number of key themes. But what are the most prominent themes of Hawthorne’s story, and how should we approach and interpret their significance?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the major themes of ‘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 Goodman Brown becomes withdrawn from the community, and even starts to doubt whether what he witnessed actually took place, or whether it was all a dream.
The Nature of Evil.
Hawthorne’s tale is remarkable in its depiction of evil not least because it raises interesting questions about what it means to ‘become’ or ‘know’ evil. Although Young Goodman Brown successfully resists the temptation to join in with the black mass taking place in the wood, his soul is nevertheless tainted by the experience. How can he look at Faith, his ‘innocent’ wife, in the same way again?
Hawthorne’s story suggests that the Puritan who is obsessed with how evil their neighbours may be (witness the Salem witch trials, which took place around the time Hawthorne’s story was set, and in the same town) is as possessed by ‘evil’ as the devil-worshipper they condemn. Their possession simply takes a different form.
This obsession with the ‘evil’ in other people leads us to another prominent theme of ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Puritanism. Once the veil has been lifted, Young Goodman Brown sees evil everywhere, even where it may well not actually exist. Puritanism was a strict form of Christianity which stressed moral discipline and purity as the correct form of Christian life.
Obedience to God was paramount, so this makes the woodland sabbath involving a figure identified as the Devil even more striking given the strict Puritan lives the villagers lead (or purport to lead) during the hours of daylight.
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.
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 question of temptation is central to understanding ‘Young Goodman Brown’. The title character is tempted, and thereafter, even though he leads a ‘good’ life in that he rejects and resists evil, his whole life is filtered through the lens of sinfulness.
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?
The whole story might be regarded as an allegory about a man’s loss of faith: his faith in humanity and human goodness, certainly, although his Christian faith is radically altered following what he sees (or thinks he ‘sees’) at the Black Mass in the woods.
In this connection, we can see how this theme of loss of faith runs throughout Hawthorne’s story: Young Goodman Brown, whose common surname, and the use of the generic term ‘Goodman’, mark him out as a kind of Everyman, stands in for all human beings. He leaves his ‘Faith’ at home at the beginning of the story and walks the (literal) path to temptation and sin.
Although he may recoil from the scale of sin he sees in evidence in the woodland clearing, his faith has been touched by what he has witnessed.
Dreams and Reality.
The key question – whether Goodman Brown really witnessed all of the supposedly upstanding members of his village engaging in a Black Mass in the forest, or whether he merely dreamt it – is one which we cannot definitively answer, so artfully did Hawthorne construct his tale so that it can be interpreted in these two very different ways.
Towards the end of the story, Hawthorne’s narrator asks, ‘Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?’ and this directly invites readers to consider what the answer might be.
However, Hawthorne knows that we cannot answer it. Instead, he wishes us to think about what difference it would make. If Brown imagined it all, he is ruining not only his own life and happiness, and that of his wife, for no reason. If he did witness it, he is powerless to change it, and he would perhaps have been better off not lifting the veil and learning what he had learned. If he had stayed home that night, as Faith had cautioned, he would still be in ignorance – and ignorance here, we might suggest, would be bliss.