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Young Goodman Brown

Nathaniel Hawthorne


Historical Context

In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne references three dark events from the Puritans’ history: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the Puritan intolerance of the Quakers, and King Philip’s War. During the Salem Witch Trials, one of the most nightmarish episodes in Puritan history, the villagers of Salem killed twenty-five innocent people who were accused of being witches. The witch hunts often involved accusations based on revenge, jealousy, botched child delivery, and other reasons that had little to do with perceived witchcraft. The Puritan intolerance of Quakers occurred during the second half of the seventeenth century. Puritans and Quakers both settled in America, hoping to find religious freedom and start their own colonies where they could believe what they wanted to. However, Puritans began forbidding Quakers from settling in their towns and made it illegal to be a Quaker; their intolerance soon led to imprisonments and hangings. King Philip’s War, the final event referenced in Hawthorne’s story, took place from 1675 to 1676 and was actually a series of small skirmishes between Indians and colonists. Indians attacked colonists at frontier towns in western Massachusetts, and colonists retaliated by raiding Indian villages. When the colonists won the war, the balance of power in the colonies finally tipped completely toward the Puritans.

These historical events are not at the center of “Young Goodman Brown,” which takes place after they occur, but they do inform the action. For example, Hawthorne appropriates the names of Goody Cloyse and Martha Carrier, two of the “witches” killed at Salem, for townspeople in his story. The devil refers to seeing Goodman Brown’s grandfather whipping a Quaker in the streets and handing Goodman Brown’s father a flaming torch so that he could set fire to an Indian village during King Philip’s War. By including these references, Hawthorne reminds the reader of the dubious history of Salem Village and the legacy of the Puritans and emphasizes the historical roots of Goodman Brown’s fascination with the devil and the dark side.