Young Goodman Brown

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Old Man/Devil

[H]e passed a crook of the road, and, looking forward again, beheld the figure of a man, in grave and decent attire, seated at the floor of an old tree. He arose at Goodman Brown’s approach and walked onward side by side with him. ‘You are late, Goodman Brown,’ said he. ‘The clock of the Old South was striking as I came through Boston; and that is full fifteen minutes agone.’

Based on the narrator’s description here, the Old Man, at first glance, appears to be like any other respectable person of the time. However, his first words make clear that he is far from normal. He heard the clock of the Old South Meeting House in Boston fifteen minutes ago, and yet Boston is located over twenty miles from the town of Danvers. Readers may infer from this fact that the Old Man must have traveled via supernatural means, a fact that he makes clear to Goodman Brown with his complaint about Brown’s tardiness.

As near as could be discerned, the second traveler was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still they might have been taken for father and son.

The narrator provides a description of the Old Man that seems deliberately vague but suggests a connection between him and Goodman Brown. Later, Goody Cloyse recognizes that the Old Man, whom she knows as the Devil, is in the guise of Goodman Brown’s grandfather. The Devil’s choice of appearance suggests that the elder Brown served in league with the Devil and is perhaps meant to help convince young Goodman Brown that he is destined to join the Devil as well.

[T]hough the elder person was as simply clad as the younger and as simple in manner too, he had an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and who would not have felt abashed at the governor’s dinner-table or in King William’s court, were it possible that his affairs should call him thither.

The narrator suggests that the Old Man looks more experienced and worldly than Goodman Brown, as an older man naturally would be. But when readers realize that the Old Man is actually the Devil, they understand that Hawthorne is implying that evil is commonly found and quite comfortable in the halls of government or in other places of great power. The narrator repeatedly suggests that most if not all politicians of this time—the 1690s—are hypocritically sinful.

Thus far the elder traveler had listened with due gravity; but now burst into a fit of irrepressible mirth, shaking himself so violently that his snake-like staff seemed to wriggle in sympathy. ‘Ha! ha! ha!’ shouted he again and again; then composing himself, ‘Well, go on, Goodman Brown, go on; but prithee, don’t kill me with laughing.’

After Goodman Brown explains that if he goes with the Devil he could never face his minister, “that good old man,” the Devil breaks into a fit of laughter as if he finds Brown’s concern hilarious. Later, readers learn that the minister, like virtually everyone else in the village, is a Devil worshipper. The Old Man/Devil does not tell Brown this fact at the time, perhaps because he knows Brown would not believe him. Brown must witness the minister’s corruption himself.

‘I may not spare you my arm, Goody Cloyse; but here is my staff, if you will.’ So saying, he threw it down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life, being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to the Egyptian magi. Of this fact, however, Goodman Brown could not take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and, looking down again, beheld neither Goody Cloyse nor the serpentine staff, but his fellow-traveller alone, who waited for him as calmly as if nothing had happened.

The Old Man once again displays his supernatural powers, making Goody Cloyse instantly disappear with the aid of his staff. The reference to events in Exodus reminds readers that the Devil Goodman Brown is walking with is the same Devil that appears in the Old Testament, at events that took place thousands of years ago. Like God, the Devil is eternal, but he seems to be far more accessible and present than God, at least in this story. His accessibility may be part of his appeal.

They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveler exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path, discoursing so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself.

The Devil is notorious for his persuasiveness, and here he acts so cleverly that Goodman Brown almost feels like the Devil’s ideas already existed within him. Brown appears to be softening toward the Devil’s enticements. At the same time, the narrator’s description of what is transpiring works on another level: If Brown is merely dreaming of this event, then his sinful notions are literally coming from Brown himself. Either way, these evil thoughts will be impossible to dismiss later.

[T]he fire on the rock shot redly forth and formed a glowing arch above its base, where now appeared a figure. With reverence be it spoken, the figure bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New England churches.

Here, the narrator explains that the Devil has changed his appearance. He is now disguised as a specific Puritan minister, and while Hawthorne does not give a specific name, the figure may be intended to be George Burroughs, one of the victims of the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s. Throughout the story, Hawthorne uses the real names of people accused of witchcraft during that event and portrays them as actual Devil worshippers, at least in the mind of Goodman Brown.

‘Lo, there ye stand, my children,’ said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad in his despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race.

The Devil leads a ritual intended to convert Goodman Brown and Faith to his cause. The couple are seemingly the only unconverted adults in Salem village. As a former, now fallen, angel, the Devil has more regret about the sinful nature of humanity than humans do themselves. As the Devil explains that by worshipping him the couple will become fully aware of their own and everyone else’s sins, his disgust with humans makes sense.