People are not always who they appear to be.
The notion that people are not always who they appear to be quickly becomes apparent to Goodman Brown as he travels through the forest alongside the devil. His initial perception of virtually everyone in Salem Village changes by the end of the story, a shift which highlights just how different an individual’s public life and private life can be. The first hint of this concept emerges as the devil enters the story, appearing to have some physical resemblance to Goodman Brown. This visual connection works in both directions to disrupt the reader’s perception of who these characters are. The devil under the guise of a good man works to play down his villainous intentions while Goodman Brown’s resemblance to the mysterious man before him foreshadows his own dark turn.
Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin are all examples of people who, as both Goodman Brown and the reader discover, present a specific public image but behave differently in private. While this form of discrepancy may be more difficult to identify outright, Goodman Brown’s exploration of his own moral identity enables him to see the dark sides of others. Seeing the spiritual leaders of his community freely associating with the devil in the forest shocks Goodman Brown and makes him aware that an individual can possess more than one identity. This information causes his binary worldview to break down, pushing him into a gray world of ambiguity where no one is easily definable.
Evil is a universal part of human nature.
While Hawthorne explores and critiques many different concepts related to morals and spirituality throughout “Young Goodman Brown,” his primary claim by the end of the story seems to be that evil is a universal part of human nature. No single character, not even holy Faith, manages to fully resist the devil’s pull and the temptation of evil. In fact, this fall from grace seems almost inevitable when, at the beginning of the story, Goodman Brown ignores Faith’s pleas for him to stay home and instead lets his curiosity guide him down the dark forest path.
While this notion may seem particularly dark and morbid, Hawthorne seems to make this assertion in the context of a binary worldview where good and evil cannot coexist. At the beginning of the story, Goodman Brown believes that an individual can either be holy and good or sinful and evil, explaining that his wife cannot possibly know about his errand because she is “a blessed angel on earth.” Of course, his binary world view weakens as he learns of his religious family’s history with the devil and sees Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin on their way to the ceremony in the forest. The image that finally destroys this perspective all together is that of the devil’s congregation where “the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.” All walks of life are present and blended together, thus suggesting that the capacity for evil is a shared human trait.
A surplus of knowledge can have its downsides.
As an allegory for the fall of man, one of the final images that “Young Goodman Brown” offers to the reader is that of Goodman Brown struggling to cope with the knowledge that the members of his community are not as pure as he once imagined them to be. This information proves to be a burden for him and changes the rest of his life, much like Adam and Eve ultimately suffer from the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit. The parallels of these two outcomes suggest that too much knowledge can become crippling and destructive for those who bear it. Regardless of whether the events of the devil’s ceremony were a dream or not, Goodman Brown’s innocent view of his community’s spirituality is destroyed. The image of his most trusted spiritual advisers, his family, and his beloved wife all at the devil’s altar makes it impossible for him to move through life without suspecting everyone around him of evil deeds. In the end, Goodman Brown’s gloomy and faithless outlook overcomes every aspect of his life. His fall from a place of hope and godliness to one of misery and isolation emphasizes the power of knowledge and the degree of fear that can come from possessing such power.