Sinful Judgments in Young Goodman Brown
What if you suddenly woke up and everything you thought you knew was wrong? Every person you unconditionally trusted, every idea you purely believed in, and every system you believed infallible turned out to be a lie. This idea is explored in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” which revolves around the internal conflict facing Goodman Brown, a young, devout member of the Puritan church in seventeenth century Salem Village. Brown chooses to enter a dark, suspenseful forest where he converses with the devil and several other forces of evil in a dream-like experience.
During which he starts to question his own sinful existence but, most importantly, everyone else’s. He begins to see every person as wicked and immoral and doubts the church’s ideals, leaving him to die a cynical and hopeless old man. ?In the story, Hawthorne highlights the childish immaturity of Brown and the inevitableness of sin and evil; but most importantly, the author incorporates several uncertainties and indefinite facts to demonstrate the fine line between good and evil. Through the use of detail, repetition, and alliteration, Hawthorne portrays Brown’s naive perception of the world. Prior to Brown’s departure, he expresses the guilt he feels for leaving his wife, Faith, but justifies the fact by stating how “‘after this one night, [he’ll] cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven’” (Hawthorne 1). The detail utilized with the word “one” puts focus on Brown’s thought process. He sees himself as superior and virtuous enough so as to be able to indulge in sin once and simply return to holy, Puritan society afterwards. This is similar to when a child swears to only eat “one” bite of a cookie and then winds up eating the whole jar.
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This emphasizes his childish overconfidence in his own willpower and resilience to the evils of the world. The use of “one” also asserts his unsophisticated perception of good and evil; he sees people as either solely good or solely evil, with no middle ground. By including the detail of how he will “follow her to heaven,” Hawthorne accentuates Brown’s misconstrued outlook on life. Despite choosing to partake in sin, he believes himself to be, without a doubt, accepted into the kingdom of heaven. The idea that solely believing in God guarantees eternal life is immature ideology, which reveals why he becomes unable to cope with reality and thus permanently destroyed upon discovering the hidden evil that occupies everyone’s hearts. Furthermore, in literary critic Charles E May’s article, “Young Goodman Brown: Overview,” the author stresses Brown’s immature outlook on life. He remarks how “[w]hereas Faith can accept the inevitable fallen nature of humanity and live with that realization, Brown…having been displaced from his childish illusion, cannot accept the necessary relativism of adulthood” (May 2). The unelaborated “journey” in the story represents his entrance into a more mature outlook of the world, with the end of the trip depicting his arrival into adulthood.
Part of adulthood consists of learning and growing at the exposure of new viewpoints, but contrastingly, Brown becomes forever destroyed after only one night of witnessing a different view. Similarly to a stubborn child, Brown does not want to change the perspective of which he has always seen his infallible world. This characterization of Brown helps reveal why he becomes severely distraught after reaching an adult outlook of life that discloses how everyone indulges in evil. Brown lets this new insight change himself into “[a] stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful…a desperate man” due to his inability to accept the ugly truth (Hawthorne 9). Through the repetition of “a,” the author emphasizes the great change that occurs in Brown. Whatever feeling he detects in himself, he mirrors on to everyone else.? ?He chooses to see the world through a cold, unforgiving lens that highlights the evil in people, rather than choosing to look for the good. Also, the alliteration of the letter “d” in “deadly…distrustful…desperate” draws attention to how Brown associates himself and others with the devil in some way or form. Believing that what applies to one applies to all is unworldly and quite ignorant. So, this serves to once again stress Brown’s limited perception of the world, which eventually leads to his eternal destruction after discovering evil’s inexorability. Through detail, repetition, and juxtaposition, Hawthorne emphasizes the unavoidable essence of sin and contribution in evil. As the induction ceremony for the new followers of the devil commences, Brown finds himself with “no power to retreat one step, nor to resist” (Hawthorne 8). The detail utilized by inputting “no” and “nor” works to underscore Brown’s inability to avoid crossing over to the dark side. Brown’s journey appears predestined, as if a force drags him to the devil, leaving him with a lack of control.
That same force lies within everyone’s heart and soul — that negative voice in one’s head that urges people to support the devil. Moreover, the detail of the word “one” once again strives to emphasize Brown’s intense lack of restriction. He becomes unable to gather the strength to withdraw just one step. This indicates the inexorableness of sin and the great amount of power necessary to resist it. Later in the ceremony, the figure exclaims how “[e]vil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness” (Hawthorne 8). The repetition of the word “evil” points out evil’s pervasiveness in society. By repeating the word, the author mimics evil’s tendency to constantly appear throughout the whole population. Also, a sense of absolutism prevails when the figure states how “evil is the nature of mankind.” By the detail utilized with the word “is,” the author dwells on thecertainty that the presence of evil remains the only guarantee of humanity. It is the only constant in a world full of variability, which supports the idea that going down the evil path is an inevitable event that applies to everyone. The juxtaposition of “evil” and “happiness” is synonymous with the contrast and constant struggle that exists within everyone.
No one is solely good or solely bad; everyone exhibits aspects of both. By pinning the two words up against each other, it represents the internal battle one constantly fights to resist the temptation and hypnotic lure of evil. Moreover, in literary critic D.M. McKeithan’s article, “Hawthorne,” the author quotes literary critic Mark Van Doren who states his stance on how “evil exists in every human heart” (McKeithan 234). This belabors how sin and evil are unavoidable rights of passage that all people participate in. Young Goodman Brown has to go into the forest and indulge in evil, similar to how everyone has to give into evil at least once in their life. Sin can be defined as a multitude of different things, so to be able to resist all temptations and not partake in any evil is a simply impossible task. The varied definitions and range of severity of sin is compatible with the inconclusiveness of the short story itself. Description and interrogative syntax serve to provide the reader with several uncertainties to allude to the slight disparity coinciding between good and evil. Throughout the entire short story, Hawthorne does not specify the kinds of creatures Brown encounters on his journey.
The author refers to the creatures as “dark figure[s]” and “shape[s]” or “voice[s]” of other characters to relate back to the indefinite facts of the world as a whole (Hawthorne 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). By utilizing vague description when referencing how other characters embody the “shape” or “voice” of an inferred evil being, Hawthorne brings to light how close evil really lies to people’s hearts. The author intentionally creates two characters, one considered good and one evil, that share the same outward appearance to represent the slight difference between good and evil. Also, by not specifying whether or not the “dark figure” is an evil spirit, the author adds a sense of apprehension in the reader that is synonymous to the uncertainty people become exposed to in the world. People do not know whether or not to trust one another or listen to the voice inside their heads telling them to indulge in evil. In addition, one of the biggest undefined facts in the story revolves around whether Brown’s journey exists as a dream or reality. After Brown returns from his voyage, Hawthorne uses interrogative syntax when questioning if Goodman Brown “[h]ad…fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” (Hawthorne 9). The author chooses to use a question to encourage readers to question their own morals and decipher whether or not they allow a dream of evil omens destroy their lives.
Hawthorne does not specify the “correct answer” because he wants to leave it up to the reader’s interpretation. Just as one makes judgments and assumptions about people in the world, Hawthorne wished for the reader to make assumptions about the outcome of the story. Also, the fact that there is not simply one answer ties into the idea that no one is purely good or evil. Correspondingly, the Salem Witch Trials were a hysterical seventeenth century phenomenon where innocent individuals accused of witchcraft were persecuted with little concrete evidence to prove so. The literary critic Terence Martin, connects the trials to the short story in his article, “Six Tales: ‘Young Goodman Brown’”, which expresses the idea that “[i]n the manner of witnesses at the Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692, Goodman Brown fails to distinguish between the specter or shape of a person and the person himself, between appearances (fashioned by the devil) and realities (created by God)” (Martin 2-3). In the Salem Witch Trials, no hard, concrete evidence for convicting the victims prevailed, and yet, society persecuted them anyways. The judges looked for the minute evil that sits in everyone’s hearts, rather than searching for the good. Similarly, Brown does not have any definite evidence that leads him to determine that everyone is pure evil, but because he tries to see evil, he makes them out to be that way in his head. Once Brown sees the evil in himself, he begins to solely look for evil in others, which leads to several misjudgements of characters that eventually lead to his destruction. Hawthorne’s short story serves to accentuate the naivety of Brown’s personality, the inexorableness of sin, and the brief disparity between good and evil. Avoiding sin is an impossible task, but learning to accept evil is the true, reachable obstacle. People can control whether they allow the devil to micromanage their life or whether they fight to resist it. The text reveals an important warning regarding whether or not to conform to evil, accept that it is an unavoidable force that exists within all, or reject the fact and let it eternally destroy oneself.
- Martin, Terence. “Six Tales: ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” ?Short Story Criticism?, edited by Anna J. Sheets, vol. 29, Gale, 1998.
- ?Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420014443/LitRC? u=j101920001&sid=LitRC&xid=30187b38. Accessed 25 Mar. 2019. Originally published in ?Nathaniel Hawthorne?, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 81-87. May, Charles E.
- “Young Goodman Brown: Overview.” ?Reference Guide to Short Fiction?, edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press, 1994. ?Literature Resource Center?, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420003838/LitRC? u=j101920001&sid=LitRC&xid=c8e0e54a. Accessed 26 Mar. 2019. McKeithan, D.M.
- “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown:’ An Interpretation.” ?Modern Language Notes?, vol. LXVII, no. 2. Feb. 1952, pp. 93-96. ?Short Story Criticism?, edited by Anna J. Sheets and Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 29, Gale, 1998, pp. 234-236. Hawthorne, Nathaniel.
- “Young Goodman Brown.”?Andromeda Rutgers?, Rutgers University, 2011-2014. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/younggoodmanbrown.html. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.