Young Goodman Brown
“‘Lo! There ye stand, my children,’ said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad, with its
despairing awfulness, as if his once angelis nature could yet mourn for our miserable race.
“Depending on one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped, that virtue were not all a dream. Now ye
are undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again,
my children, to the communion of your race!'”
The above quotation from Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is of central importance in analyzing the attitudes and
ideas present throughout the story, though in a curious way. The quotation (and the story itself), on first reading,
seem superficially to portray a central character’s loss of faith and the spiritual tragedy contained therein. Rereading,
however, reveals a more complex set of ideas, ones which neither fully condemn nor condone the strictly constructed
dichotomy of good and evil that Hawthorne employs again and again over the course of goodman Brown’s journey.
I think Hawthorne had much more in mind than a mere outline of good and evil. His primary struggle in Young
Goodman Brown seems to be less with faith vs. the faithless void than with the points in between these states. The
story seems more about the journey through between two rigidly defined states than about good and evil. By
describing good and evil through heavy-handed metaphors and symbols, such as his wife’s name and the satanic
communion he finds himself at in the forest, and then describing goodman Brown’s inability to adapt his self-image to
the hypocrisy he finds, Hawthorne comments on the ultimate failure of such a rigidly proscribed formula for human
existence. At the same time that sin is described as a seething, pervasive hypocrisy, it is also seen as a mundane fact
of living; Hawthorne seems to forfeit ultimate clarity of message in order to concentrate more fully on the journey
Hawthorne’s sense of irony and sarcasm is well illustrated in an episode like goodman Brown’s loss of his wife, Faith.
Brown experiences several points in the forest where he wants to stop, yet he always continues, because he still has
Faith. When a pink ribbon flutters down to him, however, he goes half-mad and continues on to the communion, now
believing himself Faithless. Hawthorne’s use of more easily interpreted incidents and symbols like these only
reinforce the idea for me that this is a story about much more than easy, clear divisions of human belief and behavior.
I think Hawthorne knowingly used symbols which are slightly amusing in their simplicity because he is commenting,
again, on the journey itself. His irony says that this is anything but an easy journey that starts out at dusk, made by a
man with a wife named Faith, who meets witches in the woods and witnesses the totally corrupt nature of all humanity
and then dies a lonely, tormented death. It’s the perfect Christian fairy tale nightmare, and Hawthorne seems to have
used it for exactly this reason: the journey itself is never so easy. When Brown returns to his town and sees the
entire community involved in perfectly hypocritical activities as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening, I get
the sense that Hawthorne is yet again suggesting that none of those simple allegories, whether in favor of good or
evil, are sufficient to embody something as complex as faith. Hawthorne’s humor is subtle, but I think he uses it to
talk successfully around the perimeter of the issue he wants to address instead of opting for total clarity.
Hawthorne uses many other dichotomous pairings to illustrate his ideas. Dark vs. light, uncertainty vs. safety, nature
vs. human, and fantasy vs. reality are employed to reinforce the idea that good and evil have been set up as strict
categories into which no one, not even the religious figures of the community, fit neatly. Is Hawthorne preaching a
more pliable attitude toward human thinking? Is he describing the hypocrisy which undoubtedly exists in the world
and then letting goodman Brown be a truly pious individual through his inability to accept what he sees in the forest?
Or is he more concerned with the journey itself than with any specific message or description of possible outcomes?
Goodman Brown’s abrupt, gloomy death seems to reinforce the latter idea. Had Hawthorne been concerned with
making a very particular statement about what he considers right and wrong in terms of human behavior, I think he
would have spent more time building up his tragic end.
Young Goodman Brown’s painstaking physical journey into the forest exists in contrast to the simple dualism of good
and evil. It is interesting that the journey is described in such detail. For example, clouds, trees, the shifting quality
of the light, and the appearance of the fellow traveler as the journey continues seem to underscore the inevitability
and importance of the journey to points in between two states of being. Goodman Brown eventually finds himself
betrayed by the easy categorization of good vs. evil, because he is unable to accept the possibility that goodness and
sin are inextricably bound up in human nature. His version of himself can’t accommodate a world in which his “race of
honest men and good Christians” could have taken the same path as he and returned “merrily after midnight” (p
Ultimately, I think Hawthorne is more concerned with the tension that exists on the journey than he is with preaching
for a revised, more adaptable human. His tone is ironic: hypocrisy exists; some accept it and some don’t. Goodman
Brown is the example of one who doesn’t, and he dies a gloomy death. Hawthorne’s attitude toward goodman Brown
seems to fall somewhere between ambivalent and sympathetic, though he retains a certain distance throughout the
story. Brown becomes neither the pious, tragic hero nor the dupe who couldn’t take the good (though outrageously
hypocritical) life when he saw it. Brown’s character seems to function primarily as a symbol of the ultimate hazards of
the journey between good and evil. That Brown loses his way doesn’t mean that the path is totally obscured, just as
the rest of the community’s hypocrisy does not mean that they chose the correct path. Hawthorne retains a certain
distance in his treatment of goodman Brown.
The tone of the above quotation illustrates Hawthorne’s continued use of dichotomy. Hawthorne’s tone is just as
ironic here: this passage is so overwrought and gloom-filled that it completes one half of yet another strict dualism.
The sad, solemn figure’s proclamation that “evil must be your only happiness” is similar in its simplification to the
fairy-tale characterization of faith as a pretty young woman with pink ribbons in her hair. The speaking figure’s “once
angelic nature” vs. his “despairing awfulness” further underscores the dualistic nature of the story.
The Norton Anthology describes the difficulties that the dominant writers of the period had with Christianity and
Calvinism (p 394). Hawthorne’s attitudes are no doubt partially a reaction to the Puritan mores of the era. There was
no room in between the extremes of good and evil for individuals to function; goodman Brown’s metamorphosis into
“a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” (p 584) seems to be one possible outcome
of a strict Puritan canon which does not allow for a middle ground. Hawthorne may also be commenting on the
hypocrisy (also described in the Anthology, p 396) seen when essential “American” ideas of freedom are contrasted
with the pillage and destruction of the native American. This is yet another difficult and unyielding paradox, with
which Hawthorne seems ultimately concerned.
Hawthorne seems to say that good and evil as absolute states are neither preferable nor realistic. His use of this
character, who is unable to function within an immutable version of ultimately mutable concepts, is more about the
things that exist in between these two states than it is about a definitive statement on outlining a definition of
“proper” human behavior.