The author of the short story “Young Goodman Brown,” Nathanial Hawthorne, was heavily influenced by the still strong Puritan ideals of his ancestors in all of his writings. He recognized both the altruistic concepts of the religion as well as a deep hypocritical trend as was most famously evidenced in the brutal Salem witch trials that his ancestors participated in. Hawthorne used many of his characters to help him question, and sometimes resolve, the validity of these beliefs in his mind. Within the character of Young Goodman Brown, one sees the progression from a character innocently firm in his beliefs to one wrecked by the destruction of those beliefs following a single evening spent in the forest.
At the beginning of the story, Young Goodman Brown prepares to go on a mysterious nighttime journey into the woods. His wife, Faith, begs him not to go, insisting that things will not be the same in the morning if she does. The journey is important to young Goodman Brown because it is the required transformative experience that he is expected to go through to be considered an adult member of the congregation. Even though he is now married, he does not yet consider himself to be a full member of his community until he takes this dangerous journey. The sense of danger is conveyed as he starts “on his present evil purpose. He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind” (p. 294). His feelings about the importance of this journey are so strong that he even ignores his wife’s warning statement, “may you find all well when you come back” (p. 293), that indicates he is risking more than he knows.
The idea that Goodman Brown is testing his religious beliefs is discovered as he meets himself in the woods. The character he meets under the darkness of the trees is described as so similar in shape and form that “they might have been taken for father and son” (p. 294), suggesting that the character is now actually beside himself. This idea is also brought forward as he tells the figure, “Faith kept me back a while” (p. 294). Even though it is apparent that he is referring to his wife, this statement makes it clear that one part of Goodman Brown wishes to cling to his childhood faith even as he faces an older man’s desire to test it. As he travels deeper into the forest and deeper into the questioning of his faith, Goodman Brown encounters many people he thought were near to sainthood who still broke the basic tenets of his religion in associating themselves with the devil figure in the woods. While this reinforces the Puritan concept that all men and women are born into sin, it also reveals to him that there is never any escape from sin.
Sitting on a stump, catching his strength to return to his Faith, Goodman Brown fancies he hears the voices of his Reverend and Deacon Gookin, both of whom he has looked up to as both pillars of the community and faithful leaders of the church. In pursuit of his conversion to become a full member of the church, Goodman Brown knows it is important that he follow in the footsteps of these men, but where they are going does not seem to be the salvation and wholesome life he is supposed to to find in his religious life. Although he cannot see them, he is sure of what he hears. Discovering his wife among the crowd of devil-worshippers in the forest, Goodman Brown breaks down crying “my Faith is gone!” as he realizes that his religion provides no true salvation over that of the non-believers and the sinners. “There is no good on earth, and sin is but a name. Come, the devil; for to thee is this world gave” (p. 298). Understanding the teaching of the Puritans that no man may ever escape the evil to which they’re born, regardless of their intentions or daily activities, Goodman Brown loses his faith in a good and forgiving God, giving in entirely at that moment to the despair that must follow such revelations.
Having gone through this experience of testing his faith, Goodman Brown returns to his village a broken and suspicious man no longer able to believe in anything. His experience has taught him that all people contain evil in their souls and that no one can be trusted. Even his private thoughts must be constantly questioned and at no point in time does he ever return to the easy lifestyle with his neighbors he once knew. Regardless of any outward appearances, Goodman Brown’s life is now one full of evil at every turn in which even the slightest evil is capable of counteracting even the greatest good. Under his greater understanding of his religion, Goodman Brown realizes that there is no hope that a Godly life might eventually lead one to heaven while even the most unconscious thought can land one in hell.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. (Date of publication). “The Young Goodman Brown.” Name of Anthology. Name of Editor (Ed.). Place of publication: Name of Publisher, Date of anthology publication.