At the heart of “Young Goodman Brown” is mankind’s struggle between good and evil. Goodman Brown’s deep commitment to his wife Faith gives him the strength to resist the devil’s pull until, of course, he discovers that even she has fallen to the darkness. Seeing Faith at the devil’s midnight meeting changes his perspective on morality forever, allowing him to see through the binary of good and evil and understand that both are inherent in human nature. While Hawthorne’s tale specifically follows Goodman Brown of Salem Village and his run-in with the devil, the allegorical nature of the narrative allows him to explore moral ambiguity and the tempting nature of evil more universally. This broader structural approach mirrors the content of the story thematically as both suggest that everyone, regardless of circumstance, is capable of evil. Setting this allegory in Puritan New England also allows Hawthorne to critique the insincerity of American religion, adding yet another layer to the story’s primary source of conflict.
Hawthorne sets up his allegory by first introducing the reader to Goodman Brown and his wife, Faith, both of whom function as representations of a universal concept. Goodman Brown symbolizes a “good man,” or a man whose moral goodness is a key part of his character, and Faith is the personification of a spiritual connection to God. These two characters serve as the connecting points between the literal events of the story and the abstract ideas that those events represent. The inciting incident occurs when Goodman Brown leaves Faith behind to journey deep into the forest at night. Despite his wife’s pleas for him to stay, or the desire for godliness to prevail, Goodman Brown descends into the wilderness. The dark, gloomy forest clues the reader in to the negative connotations of his mysterious journey and symbolizes the unknown.
The rising action begins as Goodman Brown comes upon a man in the forest who appears to have been waiting for him to arrive. Goodman Brown’s response to the man’s criticism of his delayed appearance, that “Faith kept [him] back awhile,” functions on a symbolic level to indicate that man’s inherent goodness cannot fully prevent a moral shift toward evil. Other key symbols in this moment include the man’s staff and the way in which he physically resembles Goodman Brown. The staff, appearing to look like “a great black snake,” acts as a reference to the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempts Eve to take from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This image highlights the tempting nature of evil and implies that the man in the forest is an embodiment of the devil. The fact that the devil has physical similarities to young Goodman Brown also foreshadows another key theme, which is that the capacity for evil exists within everyone.
As the devil guides his young student down the dark forest path, Goodman Brown learns some disturbing facts which begin to subconsciously eat away at his understanding of good and evil. The devil proudly tells Goodman Brown that, despite his family’s religious background, both his father and grandfather worked with him to harm others outside of the Puritan faith. In addition to disrupting Goodman Brown’s optimistic perception of his heritage, this information is also the first example of good and evil coexisting within one person. Goodman Brown quickly discovers that his family members are not the only ones to possess ambiguous morals, for he comes across Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin in the woods and learns that all three of these spiritual leaders are on their way to the devil’s ceremony. These revelations seem to strengthen Goodman Brown’s commitment to goodness for Faith’s sake (both his wife and his spirituality more generally), but in reality, continue to chip away at the divide between good and evil. Hearing Faith’s voice in the unsettling air and seeing one of her pink ribbons fall from the sky serves as his breaking point and, finally convinced that even the purest of people can succumb to darkness, he gives in to his own internal conflict and makes his way to the devil’s ceremony.
When Goodman Brown arrives, he takes notice of the similarities between the forest clearing and the church in the village. Hawthorne’s transformation of traditional religious imagery, such as the rock altar, the candle-like trees on fire, and the gathered congregation, further works to blur the distinction between good and evil as does the diversity of those in attendance. The devil eventually takes to the altar to begin the meeting and, at the climax of the story, reveals that Goodman Brown and his wife, Faith, are the two individuals to be welcomed into the demonic group. Seeing his wife in the presence of the devil is Goodman Brown’s breaking point as it convinces him that the capacity for evil exists in everyone. He implores that Faith resist the devil but finds himself alone again before learning whether or not she succeeded.
In the falling action of the story, the reader learns that Goodman Brown lives the rest of his life haunted by the knowledge he gained about his neighbors during his time with the devil. This skepticism renders him an outsider, and, with no true belief in goodness, he never again finds joy. Allegorically, this ending mirrors the end of the Garden of Eden story in which God punishes Adam and Eve for having acquired a forbidden level of knowledge. Including this allusion ultimately allows Hawthorne to suggest that giving into temptation and knowing the true nature of evil comes at a great price.