How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: the Allegory that Wasn’t

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Book plate from an 1849 book on American History shows crowd of Pilgrims looking humorously self-satisfied. Like Hawthorne's view, this artist's view of Pilgrims was not entirely positive.

Pilgrim figures as imagined in 1849. Like Hawthorne, this artist did not see the Pilgrims as entirely positive.*

1917 Photo of Street in Salem, Massachusetts, suggesting what the town might have looked like in Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown's day. Photo shows treelined street with New England 2-story style houses on left of the street. Black and White.

1917 Photo of Street in Salem, Massachusetts, suggesting what the town might have looked like in Goodman Brown’s day.*

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details will be mentioned. You may want to read the story first, if you haven’t already: “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835.

Everyone who’s ever had a class on this story knows that Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is an allegory, right? In an allegory, everything in the story stands for something else. Onto every character and many of the objects, we can pin a definite alternate meaning, an idea or a type of person or moral rule. In Hawthorne’s allegory, readers can enjoy picking out how Goodman Brown represents an ordinary, naïve young man, a newlywed who has always believed what adults have told him was true. His wife Faith represents his Puritan religious faith–of course,  since her name is “Faith” after all, and she wears those innocent pink ribbons in her hair.

The mysterious man Brown meets in the forest must be the Devil, even though he resembles Brown’s grandfather, because he carries a staff that seems to morph into a snake. Brown’s journey into the dark pathless wood at midnight to meet this man must represent the temptation to engage in some unspecified evil behavior. When Brown discovers that his innocent wife is in the evil forest too, he completely loses his faith/Faith and turns to the dark side. He discovers in the process that everyone he has ever known, even revered family and religious leaders, has already joined up with the devil. This rude awakening to the evil that is present in every person sours him completely on humanity. He lives henceforth a misanthropic and sour judgmental man.

What is the Moral of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”?

Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait by Charles Osgood

Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait by Charles Osgood*

Simple  allegories, like Aesop’s fables, have a moral, or a clear meaning. What,then, is the moral of this one?  Maybe the moral is: don’t flirt with the dark side or you might get in so deep you can’t get out. OR maybe the moral is kind of the opposite: we all have foibles, so just accept people as they are and don’t be so judgmental. Which one is it?

If we take the first moral, “don’t flirt with the dark side,” we interpret Hawthorne as a kind of Puritan lecturing the public on the wages of sin. However, Hawthorne’s ancestors were prominent Puritans, and he was not happy about that connection. In fact, he was obsessed with probing and disputing it.

If we take the second moral, the “get over it and accept humanity as they are” idea, we could compare Hawthorne with some of his American Romantic peers like Emerson and Thoreau, who leaned toward the idea that people were not evil, they were merely inauthentic. All people needed was to form a live connection to the divine powers that flowed throughout Nature, and to expunge bad teachings received from Society. However, Hawthorne was very skeptical about the Transcendental view that people were basically good at heart and ultimately perfectible.  Brown spends all Halloween night in a natural woodland,  well outside of the squared-up village that Society built.   The teachings he receives there may be Natural, but they can hardly be seen as Emersonian, Divine, and life-affirming. In this tale, at least, Hawthorne does not echo his fellow Romantics’ belief in the moral purity of nature. We could even read this story as a critique of this idea.

So which one of our choices is the right moral?

Another Interesting Question

Dark wood with path winding into its depths suggests the Path to Temptation for Young Goodman Brown.

Path to Temptation for Young Goodman Brown

Let’s leave this question aside for just a minute and ask another question. For some reason, my students almost always had trouble answering this one:

Why does Young Brown go into the Forest of Sin to meet the Devil in the first place? He goes despite his regret at leaving Faith, and despite his arguments to the Devil that he should turn back. Why not cling to Faith’s skirts from the beginning of the story, and just not go there?

The answer to this question is one of the big observations of Hawthorne’s tale: Brown goes into the forest because everybody, sooner or later, goes there. Everyone strays into the forest of sin—even “innocent” Faith. In his midnight vision of the Witch Meeting, Brown sees every sort of person commune equally before the devil–preachers with prostitutes, maidens with drunkards, Sunday School teachers with murderers. Before this revelation, Brown had divided the world into Good People who always resist sin and Bad People who never do. His vision shows Brown, and Hawthorne’s readers, that Sin is in everyone. Everyone is tempted. All have the capacity to do evil. All are fascinated by it.

Young Goodman Brown, Sin, and Everyone

Some recent critical analyses of this story suggest that it  seeks to undermine the idea or category of “Sin,” because Brown’s perception of evil in others is only his naïve, narrow-minded mis-characterization of human psychology. (See, for instance, Michael Jaynes’s article on how he uses this story with his composition classes to lead students to question traditional views of evil: “Moving toward an Understanding of ‘Evil.’”1) I don’t agree with such  analyses. I don’t think that Hawthorne is suggesting in the least that the idea of “evil” is obsolete or wrong-headed. Hawthorne’s story acknowledges the existence of human evil, all right—child murder, persecution for cause of conscience, poisoning sick spouses into an early grave, and more.

So then, if Hawthorne acknowledges the existence of evil, do we have a clear moral to his allegory? Is it “Don’t flirt with the dark side and keep clear of people if you want to be saved”? That is the moral Brown acts upon. After the fateful night, Brown suspects even his beloved Faith, keeping her at arm’s length forever afterward. If we interpret the story from this perspective, Hawthorne seems to suggest that people have just two options once they realize that evil is present in everyone. We can steer clear of people, or just to give in to the dark side, as Brown does temporarily, rampaging through the woods shouting a hail of cuss words, to be welcomed to the “communion of your race,” as the devil calls it.

Is Cynicism Inescapable?

This human communion based on acknowledging the evil selfishness in everyone may be based on thoroughgoing cynicism about people; but at least, the devil implies, it’s based on truth rather than pious hypocrisy and lies such as the ones Brown has been taught as a child. If everyone’s basically evil, then relationships must be based on power-seeking and skepticism, not love and trust.

But wait! If we take this lesson from Hawthorne’s tale, we will be doing the same thing Brown does: taking the Devil at his word. That is never a safe thing to do, since as Hawthorne shows, the Devil is skilled at dealing in half-truths. Readers should not be too ready to accept Young Goodman Brown’s conclusions on anything, since he is clueless on most counts. Even the narrator pokes fun at Brown all the way through the story, as James L. Williamson showed in his 1981 article in Studies in Short Fiction.2

Half True

Brown seems to accept the devil’s half-true version that everyone is a hypocrite, hiding secret and horrible sins no matter how goody-goody they appear. As the devil asserts, some people do indeed commit murder or sadistic persecution or a myriad of other sins. But everybody? Surely Brown forgets that Sin, universal as it is, is not the whole story. He also judges mere interest in sin to be as bad as actually worshiping the Devil.  Faith’s simple presence in the forest is enough for him to lose her, even though he awakens from his experience not knowing  her actual answer to the Devil’s invitation. Though he doesn’t keep faith with Faith the next morning, Faith keeps faith with him, welcoming him home with trust and affection. Her continuing love signals the possibility of a relationship based on something other than cynicism about all human motives.

In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne poses that the potential to sin exists in every heart; but how to read the allegory? What should our reaction be? Many commentators have pointed out that, once he is back in civilization, Brown seems to believe that everyone is an evil fallen being. There is only one exception: himself. Some critics say he is projecting his sense of guilt onto others to avoid acknowledging anything wrong in himself. I like Michael Tritt’s interpretation in his 1986 article3 that Brown thinks that among all his acquaintance, only he remains unfallen. Does Brown forget completely that he was in the forest by his own choice, along with everyone else? Given this failure to see the log in his own eye, surely readers must be skeptical of Brown’s sour, judgmental, misanthropic treatment of his neighbors, post-epiphany.

How to Respond? The Story May Ask But Not Answer

But what is the right response to this discouraging discovery that evil is in everyone? It is interesting that Hawthorne, in this particular tale, stops short of endorsing one. He doesn’t even fully endorse whether Brown has seen anything correctly at all.

So maybe “Young Goodman Brown” may start out as an allegory, but doesn’t really end as one, at least not as a simple one. Readers who know straightforward allegories like  Aesop’s Fables may expect a one-to-one correspondence between character, thing, and idea. In “Young Goodman Brown,” that correspondence breaks down. Hawthorne refuses to point a firm, clear moral.

Instead, he poses a question: if a tendency to evil is in everyone, how do we respond? Hawthorne doesn’t lecture.  Instead, he invites readers to ponder, discuss, and interpret, as a complex and layered piece of great literature will do.

But if you feel that you need a simple moral, take one of the two we started with: “Don’t flirt with the dark side” or “Stop judging everybody.” You’ll probably be half right. But one thing is certain: in Brown’s  enduring gullibility to believe what he is told, first by narrow, small-minded teachers, and later by more nefarious, ill-intentioned figures, and in his childish desire to lump all his neighbors into firm categories called Good and Bad, Young Goodman Brown remains All Wrong.

Have a thought about today’s post? Please leave a reply.

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References:

1Michael Jaynes. “Moving toward an Understanding of ‘Evil’* ‘Young Goodman Brown,’ University Freshmen, and Semiotics.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction, vol. 7, no. 1, 2006, pp. 66-77.
2Williamson, James L. “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne’s ‘Devil in Manuscript’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 18, no. 2, 1981, pp. 155-162.
3Tritt, Michael. “‘Young Goodman Brown’ and the Psychology of Projection.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 23, no. 1, 1986, pp. 113-117.

*Photo Credits:

Illustration from  A History of the Pilgrims and Puritans, 1922. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Pilgrim Village  photo taken 1917.  By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

Nathaniel Hawthorne. By Charles Osgood – [Public Domain], via Wikipedia Commons 

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6 Comments

  1. Russell J Moore

    What an amazing analysis and article. I need to ponder and think about and mediate on this issue more. When I first read this (high school), I had a superficial analysis, much like Brown’s. Now, over 20 years later, I see the story in much more depth, and wonder what, like all humans, the correct reaction to the fact that we’re ALL deeply flawed beings. It’s certainly not Brown’s reaction, which is to distance himself and embrace cynicism. At first blush, I think we need to become MORE connected with those around us, which is the exact opposite reaction as the titular character.

    • MJ Booklover

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I think you focus exactly on the question Hawthorne wanted to explore in this story: how do we react when we learn that the people we revered aren’t perfect? Do we judge, revile, and disconnect from them, or come to a more complex understanding? As you say, Hawthorne suggests that Brown’s reaction is probably not the best one, since he ends up miserable and alone. If anything, Hawthorne urges the value of humility. One of his favorite themes is how awareness of our own flaws and capacity for evil promotes our connection to others, as he explores at more length in The Scarlet Letter.

  2. Josh V

    I’ve never encountered this story before, but I really enjoyed it and your analysis.

    One interpretation that I can see in this story is that it is about Goodman Browns fall from grace, I think it is a cautionary tale and a warning that pride comes before the fall.

    It’s clear that this meeting with the hooded figure is no accident, in fact it is the entire intent of Brown’s trip. Before leaving, his wife Faith begs him to reconsider, but Brown disregards her warnings and ensures her confidently that all will be fine. When Brown is on his way to the meeting he worries that, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”, I think this suggests that he is quite nervous about this whole ordeal despite how confidently he dismissed Faith’s concerns. Upon meeting up with the mysterious hooded man, one of the first things he tells him is that he is doing something neither his father nor his grandfather has done before. He appears to hold these men to high standards, but seeks to elevate himself to, or above, their position by accomplishing something neither of them have done before. As soon as the meeting is made, Brown is eager to return home and have this night finished, but the hooded man encourages him to continue. It’s notable that several times throughout his journey, Brown expresses a desire to end it and return home to Faith. The Hooded Man never forces him to do anything, but he does encourage him and, at one point even laughs at him, appealing to Brown’s pride to keep him moving forward.
    After a series of events that increasingly shake Brown’s faith and cause him to lose respect for the townsfolk he previously loved, he…”approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart.” I think this line here is the key to the story and is what breaks Brown, turning him into the bitter angry man he becomes for the rest of his life.

    Before the night’s journey, he was confident to the point of pridefulness, in his goodness and faith. But in the end he realized he sympathized with his townsfolk’s wickedness, and recognized he was a part of this “Loathful Brotherhood”. He realized that he was part of this brotherhood he now abhorred, and if he was part of them, then he was no different and thus abhorred himself. This is why he was never able to live with himself afterwards.

    Brown’s pride led him into this meeting with the corruptible Hooded Man, sure he would come out of it with his purity in check, but ultimately this pride led to his fall.

    One additional thing I think is interesting is this line:
    “He could have well nigh sworn, that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke-wreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?”
    The story never goes into detail about his parents, but this section makes a very powerful image regardless. I can’t help but compare this scene to the beginning of the story, when Faith begs him not to go. I wonder, did his mother try to prevent his father from making this same journey in the past, as Faith tried to stop him?

    • MJ Booklover

      Thanks for your thoughtful analysis! In some ways it agrees with mine, but in other ways you present a different point of view on the story. You see Brown as going into the woods to “face down” the devil and emerge with purity intact; when he doesn’t succeed in doing that, he becomes disappointed in himself as well as in all of his former heroes and role models. I read the story more as Brown’s curiosity about evil–he thinks he can take a little walk on the wild side just to see what it’s all about, but finds that not only is he in for more than he bargained for, so is every other human being. I can see the story both ways. Also, thanks for pointing out the parallel references to Brown’s mother and Faith–I hadn’t noticed that! Good observation. Thanks for giving us more ways to look at this complex story. I think it’s going to keep teasing our minds.

      • Josh V

        That part at the end regarding his mother is probably my favorite part. She’s never mentioned previously so she’s kind of a mystery, then she swoops in unexpectedly when all seems lost to save her wayward son. Except she doesn’t. She fails and her son is lost… There is some powerful symbolism packed into 20 words of a ten page story.

        Thanks for all of this, I’m looking forward to catching up on the rest of your blog.

      • MJ Booklover

        Great points! Looking forward to maybe seeing your thoughts on some of the other works we’ve featured on the site so far.

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