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Young Goodman Brown

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Historical Context

Themes

The Weakness of Public Morality

In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne reveals what he sees as the corruptibility that results from Puritan society’s emphasis on public morality, which often weakens private religious faith. Although Goodman Brown has decided to come into the forest and meet with the devil, he still hides when he sees Goody Cloyse and hears the minister and Deacon Gookin. He seems more concerned with how his faith appears to other people than with the fact that he has decided to meet with the devil. Goodman Brown’s religious convictions are rooted in his belief that those around him are also religious. This kind of faith, which depends so much on other people’s views, is easily weakened. When Goodman Brown discovers that his father, grandfather, Goody Cloyse, the minister, Deacon Gookin, and Faith are all in league with the devil, Goodman Brown quickly decides that he might as well do the same. Hawthorne seems to suggest that the danger of basing a society on moral principles and religious faith lies in the fact that members of the society do not arrive at their own moral decisions. When they copy the beliefs of the people around them, their faith becomes weak and rootless.

The Inevitable Loss of Innocence

Goodman Brown loses his innocence because of his inherent corruptibility, which suggests that whether the events in the forest were a dream or reality, the loss of his innocence was inevitable. Instead of being corrupted by some outside force, Goodman Brown makes a personal choice to go into the forest and meet with the devil; the choice was the true danger, and the devil only facilitates Goodman Brown’s fall. Goodman Brown is never certain whether the evil events of the night are real, but it does not matter. If they are a dream, then they come completely from Goodman Brown’s head—a clear indication of his inherent dark side. If they are real, then Goodman Brown has truly seen that everyone around him is corrupt, and he brought this realization upon himself through his excessive curiosity. Goodman Brown’s loss of innocence was inevitable, whether the events of the night were real or a dream.

The Fear of the Wilderness

From the moment he steps into the forest, Goodman Brown voices his fear of the wilderness, seeing the forest as a place where no good is possible. In this he echoes the dominant point of view of seventeenth-century Puritans, who believed that the wild New World was something to fear and then dominate. Goodman Brown, like other Puritans, associates the forest with the wild “Indians” and sees one hiding behind every tree. He believes that the devil could easily be present in such a place—and he eventually sees the devil himself, just as he had expected. He considers it a matter of family honor that his forefathers would never have walked in the forest for pleasure, and he is upset when the devil tells him that this was not the case. He himself is ashamed to be seen walking in the forest and hides when Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin pass. The forest is characterized as devilish, frightening, and dark, and Goodman Brown is comfortable in it only after he has given in to evil.

Motifs

Female Purity

Female purity, a favorite concept of Americans in the nineteenth century, is the steadying force for Goodman Brown as he wonders whether to renounce his religion and join the devil. When he takes leave of Faith at the beginning of the story, he swears that after this one night of evildoing, he will hold onto her skirts and ascend to heaven. This idea, that a man’s wife or mother will redeem him and do the work of true religious belief for the whole family, was popular during Hawthorne’s time. Goodman Brown clings to the idea of Faith’s purity throughout his trials in the forest, swearing that as long as Faith remains holy, he can find it in himself to resist the devil. When Goodman Brown finds that Faith is present at the ceremony, it changes all his ideas about what is good or bad in the world, taking away his strength and ability to resist. Female purity was such a powerful idea in Puritan New England that men relied on women’s faith to shore up their own. When even Faith’s purity dissolves, Goodman Brown loses any chance to resist the devil and redeem his faith.

Symbols

The Staff

The devil’s staff, which is encircled by a carved serpent, draws from the biblical symbol of the serpent as an evil demon. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent tempts Eve to taste the fruit from the forbidden tree, defying God’s will and bringing his wrath upon humanity. When the devil tells Goodman Brown to use the staff to travel faster, Goodman Brown takes him up on the offer and, like Eve, is ultimately condemned for his weakness by losing his innocence. Besides representing Eve’s temptation, the serpent represents her curiosity, which leads her into that temptation. Goodman Brown’s decision to come into the forest is motivated by curiosity, as was Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit. The staff makes clear that the old man is more demon than human and that Goodman Brown, when he takes the staff for himself, is on the path toward evil as well.

Faith’s Pink Ribbons

The pink ribbons that Faith puts in her cap represent her purity. The color pink is associated with innocence and gaiety, and ribbons themselves are a modest, innocent decoration. Hawthorne mentions Faith’s pink ribbons several times at the beginning of the story, imbuing her character with youthfulness and happiness. He reintroduces the ribbons when Goodman Brown is in the forest, struggling with his doubts about the goodness of the people he knows. When the pink ribbon flutters down from the sky, Goodman Brown perceives it as a sign that Faith has definitely fallen into the realm of the devil—she has shed this sign of her purity and innocence. At the end of the story, when Faith greets Goodman Brown as he returns from the forest, she is wearing her pink ribbons again, suggesting her return to the figure of innocence she presented at the beginning of the story and casting doubts on the veracity of Goodman Brown’s experiences.

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