Nathaniel Hawthorne comes from an interesting background. He was born in Salem and later returned to live there. He was a descendant of William Hathorne, a puritan judge who persecuted Quakers, and John Hathorne, a puritan magistrate who participated in the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne’s kinship to these two notables of puritan history makes the story “Young Goodman Brown,” all the more interesting.
Hawthorne alludes to John Hathorne when he writes about Goodman Brown’s “fellow traveler” commenting on Brown’s grandfather, who “lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. Young Goodman Brown” is about one man’s journey through the woods with the devil and his encounters that make him doubt his faith in himself, his wife, and the community in which they reside.
The theme of this story is that beyond any intangible evil, the evil that men do is ultimately the more damaging. Throughout the story Hawthorne uses setting and characters as symbols representing different aspects of good and evil and he uses the plot to develop the eventual win-over of evil over “Goodman” Brown’s “Faith. ” Not surprisingly “Young Goodman Brown” takes place in Salem during the puritan era.
The story begins with Goodman Brown departing from his wife in the village to meet with and take a stroll in the forest with a “fellow-traveler” the devil. The contrast between the forest and the town is symbolic. On the outside, it seems like a normal, religious puritan village, but when one goes in deep, one sees there is a center of darkness. The deep, dark forest in the puritan town represents the internal evil of the villagers. The forest is viewed as mysterious, unknown and inhabited by the devil, while the town is pleasant safe and where his wife, “Faith,” is.
During Goodman Brown’s walk through the “dark forest,” he sees and learns that many of his mentors and relatives have chosen the path of evil. The forest is where all the respectable people of the town go to vent their evil while outside of the forest, they seem like they are pure and good. Hawthorne adds to the symbolism by personifying the trees “which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through” as Brown “walks alongside a dreary road. ” Hawthorne uses the characters of the story also to represent good and evil. The names of the main character and his wife are ironic.
Faith, in the literal context of the story, is Goodman Brown’s wife. In the connotative sense, Faith represents Brown’s actual faith in God and goodness of humankind. She is a symbol of Brown’s faith who then becomes tainted by evil. The pink ribbons in Faith’s cap represent purity, white, tainted by the evilness of the devil, red. He believes that his wife, Faith is good. Although the devil shows Brown that his father, the deacon, and the rest of the townspeople turned to evil, he will not go with the Devil because of his thoughts of Faith.
There is a certain point in the journey when he asks where his Faith is, at this point, he is symbolically seeking his own faith in goodness, or the righteous path and is wondering why he is on this path with the devil. Toward the end, when he sees his wife among the others in the woods, a participant of the ceremony, he loses faith. He wakes up and is left miserable, alone and distrustful of all the villagers including his wife. The main character’s name, Goodman Brown, is ironic because for all his “goodness” and faith in his beliefs, he becomes the one person in the village who personifies evil.
In the end of the story, the event changes Goodman Brown’s life and, whether it was reality or a trick played by the devil in Brown’s dream, the effect it had on him lasts the rest of his life. Brown doesn’t trust anyone, He doubts everyone, and sees evil in everyone. He becomes “stern, sad, darkly meditative, and distrustful. ” Brown would not participate in singing holy psalms. Goodman Brown “would turn pale whenever the minister spoke from the bible. ” He shrank from his wife, scowled when his “family knelt down for prayer” and his “dying hour was gloom. ”
The “fellow-traveler” who suddenly appears “at the foot of an old tree” is symbolic of evil and seems to be the devil. He carries a staff shaped in the image of a snake that “assumes life. ” The staff also consumes life as is it does when the devil uses it to transport “Goody Cloyse” to her destination. The devil allows Brown to see corruptness. The devil magnifies Brown’s temptation when he tells him of his relatives and peers succumbing to these evil doings. When he shows Brown these people that are his relatives and mentors choose to walk with the devil, Goodman Brown becomes disheartened. He can no longer trust anyone.
After the journey Brown doubts everyone’s faith and no longer trusts what people say. Everyone is evil. The journey through the woods is a metaphor for the journey that Goodman Brown and all humans, must face in choosing which path to take in life. This story revolves around Goodman Brown’s decision to discard his formerly pious life for one of hate, distrust and misery. He becomes evil. In the end, few people were willing to acknowledge his existence “when he was born to his grave, besides neighbors not a few, carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone. ” In effect, he became the evil that everyone else turned their back on.