The Use of Symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Young Goodman Brown, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is the story of a seventeenth century Puritan man who loses faith in all of mankind. He sees his wife, members of the religious community and other respected townspeople attending a Black Mass and this leads him to mistrust all of the townspeople and even his own family. Ironically, it is unclear if this is even real or just a dream he has had and the people may not have actually done anything wrong and instead, the story describes Brown’s personal loss of faith and belief in the goodness of humankind. The story focuses on guilt and innocence, alienation and the ultimate battle of good versus evil. Hawthorne uses characters names and physical places such as the dark woods to symbolize Brown’s journey from goodness and innocence to guilt and evil leading to his alienation from his wife and community.
First is the idea of guilt and innocence as well as good versus evil. Young Goodman Brown starts out as an innocent man believing in the goodness of those around him. “Brown’s youth and good nature are symbolized by his name. “ (everything 4 me). His wife, is aptly named Faith, and represents an angelic quality to him; “Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven.” (Hawthorne 1987). The start of his symbolic journey is when he wanders away form his Faith and he calls himself a wretch for even taking this journey.
However, on his quest, Brown wanders into the forest though instinctively he knew he shouldn’t as he notes that his father and Grandfather never entered those woods as his family is of good Christians. The woods are dark and representative of evil. “These woods are the physical location in which he will explore his doubts and conflicting desires. That he feels ambivalent about forging an alliance with the Devil is clear from his first entry into the forest, when he tells his companion that Faith kept me back awhile. (Korb 1997). In spite of his doubts, he does enter. While in the woods, he loses that innocence and determines that humankind is essentially evil. During this journey he meets the devil who is older man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Brown and claims to know Brown’s father and grandfather. It seems that Hawthorne is aligning Brown’s ancestry with this evil and he feels guilt over this association. He many even fear that he too could turn evil like his ancestors or the old man could represent and older, evil side of Brown himself.
He witnesses hypocrisy in the clergy and other respected members of the community participating in a Black Mass and even his own wife is there which devastates him. Losing her is representative of him losing him innocence symbolized by losing his wife. “But where is Faith?” (Hawthorne 1987). He is speaking here both of his wife and his own faith in the goodness of people.
It would appear here that sin is being shown as something that happens to all men and even the purest are guilty, and Faith seems to understand this about mankind but Brown is saddened by this aspect of the human condition and cannot seem to overcome this. This leads him to become alienated from his community and his Faith. “Therefore, Brown comes to represent Hawthorne’s belief in the isolation of the human spirit Hawthorne acknowledged that every human being is alone ‘in that saddest of all prisons, his own heart.’ (Korb 1997) He cannot accept that man can have a duality of good and evil or perhaps he cannot accept this about himself.
Everything4me. Young Goodman Brown More Symbolism. Retrieved June 19,2009 for http://www.everything4me.netfirms.com/symbolism02.htm#
Hawthorne, Nathaniel “Young Goodman Brown.” The Lexington Introduction to Literature. Ed. Paul Smith & Judith Leet. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1987, 142-151.
Korb, Rena. “An Overview of Young Goodman Brown. Short Stories for Students.
Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.