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 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*
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?
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.