Symbolism in Young Goodman Brown

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an excellent and creative user of allegory and symbolism in his writings. Examples of allegory and symbolism can be drawn from many of his stories such as "Young Goodman Brown", and "The Minister's Black Veil". The story I will touch on will be "Young Goodman Brown". In this story Hawthorne uses allegory, or religious symbolism to make certain connections with the characters, places, items, and situations. "Hawthorne, in his metaphysical moods, is nothing if not allegorical" (James 1879, 310).

"Young Goodman Brown" is a short story about a young man named Goodman Brown, living in a Puritan town in New England. Goodman has to go into the woods for a night, to meet the devil. His wife, Faith, pleads with him not to go, but he tells her that he has to. Goodman goes off into the woods following a trail, until he meets the devil. They start talking, and the devil tells Goodman how he can make his life better with his help. After hearing what the devil has to say, Goodman refuses any help from him. "This makes Goodman feel strong until they meet his childhood catechism teacher and see her turned" (Mikosh 2000, 1). The devil also goes on to tell Goodman that in the past, he has made deals with many of his relatives. Hearing this, and seeing his catechism teacher turned evil shakes his faith in God a little, but he is still able to hold off the devil's advances. Goodman walks on, until he hears a noise. He doesn't want to be seen in the woods by anyone, so he ducks into the bushes. He looks out and sees the village's minister and another well respected townsperson riding by on horses. Goodman starts wondering if everyone in the village has turned evil. At this point he hears chanting noises far off, and goes to see what's going on. He comes to a clearing, where he sees his wife and "the rest of the community there participating in satanic acts" (Mikosh 2000, 1). The next morning, Goodman wakes up in the forest. Everything that he saw the night before, he thinks really happened. When he returns to the village he sees his wife Faith running up to hug him, and he just brushes by her. His attitude and his perception of the town changed completely over night, thinking they are all evil, he no longer trusts anyone.

In "Young Goodman Brown", Hawthorne uses a lot of symbolism, most of which is religious. First, the naming of the main character, Goodman, and his wife Faith. "The names alone serve as an indication of what Hawthorne puts as an obvious religious allegory with the goodman and faith soon to be pitted against an unspeakable evil" (Segura 1999, 1). Hawthorne was thinking ahead when he named Goodman's wife Faith. Faith means the unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence. He knew that readers would make a connection when they realize that the purest person in the village, that's supposed to have an unquestioning belief in God was giving in to the devil. He also used the name Goodman for a reason. "A "good man" in Hawthorne's day was a person who came from a proper lineage" (Segura 1999, 1). Goodman Brown tells the devil that his ancestors were all good men, and that they never made any deals with him. The devil then tells Goodman that that is not the case, that they had made deals with him in the past. Hawthorne uses this to "criticize the patriarchal lineage upon which a person places his worth" (Segura 1999, 1).

The forest, whether he actually went there or not, symbolizes evil. This is why Goodman jumped into the bushes when he heard people coming on the trail. The people of the village knew that if you went into the woods at night, you were up to something evil. That's also why the satanic rituals were taking place in the woods, because it symbolized evil.

While talking with Goodman, the devil offers him his walking stick, in case he gets tired. The stick, which has two snakes twisting up the side of it, can be seen as a symbol of evil. Its seems as though the devil is saying that Goodman's faith in God will tire him out, and that if he took the stick, he would accept evil and things would be a lot easier for him.

Hawthorne uses this story to convey his thoughts about the Puritan's idea of free religion. When Goodman Brown returns to the village the next day, he isn't trusting of anyone, because he thinks everyone has turned evil. "In the space of one evening, he has been given such a monstrous perception of the scope, depth, and universality of evil that he is forever blind to the world as it normally presents itself; anything that does not conform to the vision he has seen he considers a fraud" (Martin 1965, 89). The community then sees him as crazy because of his different opinions, and he becomes an outcast. "This is Hawthorne's comment upon the religious communities of his time, like his Scarlet Letter; the Puritans with their gift of free religion had decided to insure that no diversity of opinion could be presented and also the community was seen as pure and rid of all external evils" (Segura 1999, 1).

There is no question that Hawthorne was a truly great user of symbolism, mainly allegory. His use of it in "Young Goodman Brown" seemed to get under your skin and make you feel uneasy, and lead you to re-think the things you learned as you were growing up. "The subject of course wants many imposing elements - for it is merely an Allegory of simple New England Village Life - but as a Tale of the Supernatural it certainly is more exquisitely managed than anything we have seen in American Literature, at least!" (Harris 1982, 293).

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