Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
Personification of the Forest
As Goodman Brown descends deeper and deeper into the forest, Hawthorne relies heavily on personification to emphasize the setting’s connection to the devil and challenge the presumed goodness of the people of Salem Village. The primary human quality that Hawthorne attributes to the dark forest is a voice. Since forests often serve as symbols of the unknown, the elements of personification at work throughout the narrative tie the forest’s eerie uncertainty to the difficult moral questions the characters encounter. One of the first connections between voices and the setting occurs when a dark cloud covers the sky carrying “the accent of town's-people of his own.” This connection, while adding to the ominous mood of the story, foreshadows the community’s surprising presence in such a dark place.
As Goodman Brown takes hold of the devil’s staff and accepts evil into his life, the forest becomes even more alive. He feels like “all the echoes of the forest [are] laughing like demons around him,” and his personification of the evil within the forest symbolizes the ever-present evil within his fellow humans. Hawthorne further develops this notion by describing how Goodman Brown hears “the wind tolled like a distant church-bell” and recognizes a church hymn being sung by “all the sounds of the benighted wilderness.” Specifically attributing spiritual voices to the devil’s forest blurs the separation between the church and the wilderness, or good and evil, and suggests that the people of Salem Village follow the same pattern. The personified forest ultimately gives Hawthorne yet another way to highlight man’s inherent capacity for evil.