Symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
How it works
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorne is able to utilize both suspense and riddles to capture the focus of the reader. Within the story, the reader encounters witchcraft, rituals, and supposedly double lives that involve multiple characters throughout Brown’s adventure. However, as with most stories, the reader must ask how all of these things are connected and what is the overall message that Hawthorne is trying to convey? To truly understand the purpose behind Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, one must see the many uses of symbolisms that are incorporated into the story. Hawthorne shows how one’s greatest asset is their faith, all the while describing the continuous struggle one must go through to hold their faith.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of Young Goodman Brown, was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4th, 1804. Throughout his life, Hawthorne wrote multiple literary pieces that include The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and Mosses from an Old Manse. Hawthorne’s writing style is more attributed to dark romanticism with examples being cautious tales that warn of evil and sin, incorporating symbolism in all his works. Nathaniel Hawthorne then passed away on May 19th, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
How it works
At the beginning of the story, Goodman Brown is shown exchanging a kiss with his wife, Faith. Faith is described as pure and untainted, allowing the reader to see Faith as someone who is aptly named, “And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap” (Hawthorne). Within this one sentence, one can perceive how Hawthorne uses symbolism to show Brown’s faith in the form of one person, this being his wife Faith. Brown’s faith is reflected in his wife, showing its innocence. Moreover, Goodman Brown explains how his faith cannot be weakened, within the sentence “’Amen!’ Cried Goodman Brown. ‘Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee’” (Hawthorne). Hawthorne shows the reader how Brown is not only talking to his wife but also referring to his faith that he holds seemingly unwaveringly. The story continues with Goodman Brown starting on his journey into the woods with an “excellence resolve for the future” (Hawthorne), stating that Brown “felt justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (Hawthorne). As the reader focuses on the ‘present evil purpose’ that Brown is going to undertake, one must also see how intense Brown’s will during this personal exchange. Brown feels ‘justified in making more haste’, believing that his faith will override any harm done to him on the journey. It is then that Goodman Brown finds himself face to face with the dark figure that he arranged to meet with in the woods. After the figure attempts to persuade Brown to follow him, Brown replies “it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples, touching the matter thou wot’st of” (Hawthorne). Both Brown’s purpose and scruple attribute to his faith, as Brown as doubts his reasoning for meeting with the figure, showing how strong his faith is during the first act of Brown’s journey. Here, Goodman Brown tries once more to end the meeting with the figure, stating that “’Well, then, to end the matter at once,’ said Goodman Brown, considerably nettled, ‘there is my wife, Faith. It would break her dear little heart; and I’d rather break my own!’” (Hawthorne). Once more does Hawthorne refer to Brown’s wife Faith as a solid connection to Brown’s personal faith. Within this sentence, Goodman Brown would rather meet his end than let go of his ‘Faith’. This poses an interesting situation for not only Goodman Brown but also for other religious people around the world. An inherent struggle that all religious people must endure is the temptation to leave their religious principles behind and live whatever type of life they choose. This temptation comes to Goodman Brown as the story continues.
As the story progresses, Goodman Brown’s faith starts to show signs of wavering. As both Brown and the dark figure continue their journey in the woods, they encounter Goody Cloyse, whom Brown knows to be a “pious old lady” (Hawthorne). Cloyse exclaims that the dark figure is the devil, but something strange happens next. Cloyse and the dark figure being conversating as if they know each other personally, with the dark figure saying, “Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend?” to which Cloyse agrees, calling the dark figure “your worship” (Hawthorne). Cloyse begins telling the dark figure how she lost her broomstick, inferring that one of the other witches by the name of Goody Cory might have stolen it. The dark figure, now taking the shape of the old Goodman Brown, gives Cloyse his staff, causing both the staff and Cloyse to seemingly disappear from Brown’s sight. Brown’s next statement is “That old woman taught me my catechism!”, meaning that Cloyse must have taught Brown his Christians principles that he holds dearly (Hawthorne). Hawthorne then adds “and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment.” (Hawthorne). This is the first occurrence, though subtle, that Goodman Brown’s faith falters. Brown observes this ‘pious, old lady’ converse with whom she states is the devil, explaining that she lost her broomstick and had to foot it to the meeting. This experience had a profound effect on Brown, as he viewed this woman that he knew for so long now communicating with the devil.
As Goodman Brown recovers from the sight of Goody Cloyse, he continues down the path with the figure now called the “elder traveler” (Hawthorne). However, Goodman Brown suddenly stops, “sat himself down on the stump of a tree and refused to go any further” (Hawthorne). Brown tells the elder traveler that his “mind is made up”, refusing to acknowledge the “wretch old woman” who “choose to go to the devil” as a valid reason to side with the devil. Brown then exclaims that “is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?” (Hawthorne). Hawthorne again uses Brown’s wife as a symbol for Brown’s own faith, as Brown continues to grasp his faith with intense emotion. Hawthorne paints Brown in this current situation as a man who holds steadfast to his beliefs regardless of the events before him. The elder figure then tells Goodman Brown to “sit here and rest yourself awhile; and when you feel like moving again, there is my staff to help you along” (Hawthorne). Brown then thinks of being in the arms of his wife Faith, using the words “purely and sweetly” to describe such a sensation (Hawthorne). However, his senses were then turned to the path once again by the voices of the Deacon Gookin and the minister. They were traveling down the same path that Brown was on, however Brown concluded that there were no churches nor prayer meetings held in such an area (Hawthorne). Although Brown then questions the existence of Heaven, he again bolsters his faith, saying “With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (Hawthorne). One should notice how Hawthorne uses the symbolism of faith in this sentence, as now Hawthorne did not state that Brown was talking about his wife explicitly. Although Brown questions the validity of heaven, he is still grasping unto his faith for both guidance and comfort in such a haunting situation. As Goodman Brown was about to pray, he heard the voices of “both pious and ungodly” but one voice stuck out the most to Brown; the voice of a young woman. Brown recognized such a voice, thus shouting “Faith!” is desperation (Hawthorne). Immediately after, there was scream from the forest and a pink ribbon fluttered down towards Brown. As he grasped the ribbon, Brown cried “My Faith is gone! There is no good on earth; sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.” (Hawthorne).
It is in this moment that Goodman Brown’s faith is completely dissolved. Recognizing that his wife Faith is no longer with him in this world, Brown caves and starts devolving into madness, laughing insensately while grasping the staff, therefore accepting the devil’s offer. After witnessing Faith at the witches meeting with the entire village, he tells her to “look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One”, although Brown’s attempt is never confirmed (Hawthorne). Brown’s attempt to stave off the devil one last time was in vain, as Brown returns to the village full of fear and disdain. As Brown attended church services, he was filled by an “anthem of sin” which “drowned all the blessed strain” (Hawthorne). Brown then died as a sad, disgruntled old man, and as he died, Hawthorne wrote “his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne).
To someone reading Young Goodman Brown for the first time may believe that the story holds a simple Christian allegory where it outlines the dangers of moving away from one’s religious beliefs. The concept is easy to understand; Brown’s wife is Faith, whom reflects Brown’s own faith with her innocence and purity. Hawthorne draws attention to such symbolism by stating that she was “aptly named.” Throughout Brown’s journey into the forest, he constantly reminds himself that his wife Faith is a “blessed angel on earth” and his devotion to his wife is the one thing that causes Brown is withdraw his position within the journey. However, as he learns that Faith has been lost, Brown gives in and loses his faith, thus suffering the following consequences. However, there are modern critics who speculate that Brown lost his faith not only in himself, but also his community and his future. Jane Donahue Eberwein writes that Brown misunderstands the tenets of Calvinist theology, where Brown might have believed that through his first conversion, reflected by his marriage with Faith, that Brown would be safe from all future lapses of belief (Eberwein). Eberwein views Brown as the type of believer who, “lost halfway in the conversation process became profoundly disillusioned with themselves, their neighbors, the church and the faith, yet who continued hypocritically to maintain the façade of sanctification” (Eberwein). Following such theological evidence, Hawthorne himself was a Puritan, much like Brown was within the story, so it can be seen that Hawthorne wrote in many Puritan and Calvinistic beliefs and principles into Young Goodman Brown. Among those beliefs is the belief that there are satanic forces within the isolated areas of the natural world. Another belief held by those theologies is the distrust of the natural world, which can be connected to Brown’s distrust as expressed within the lines “There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree” and “could these holy men be journeying, so deep into the heathen wilderness” (Hawthorne).
In the story’s conclusion, it is Goodman Brown that follows his assumptions regarding his faith and ultimately falls into a dark pit of thought; that no one can escape the horrors and the evils of the world. However, it was Brown that choose to go through with his journey into the woods so he must bear the consequences of his actions, including the gloomy aftermath that followed Brown until his passing. E. A. Duychkink wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works that included Young Goodman Brown, stating that the story “is simply an enforcement of the old, well-known, often illustrated truth, that there is much capacity for evil in the best of us, and that it rests very much within our own choice whether we shall be angels or devils” (Crowley Duychkink). If Brown had reflected upon his faith in his thoughts and found them lacking in reinforcement, then Goodman Brown may have never gone on his journey into the woods, staying with his wife Faith, enduring a life without gloom and distrust.