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”?
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
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
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.
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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.