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Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown | Context



Puritanism was a reform movement of the 16th and 17th centuries meant to purify the Church of England of the effects of Catholicism. The Puritans' desire to make Puritanism a way of life for all of England led to civil war and unrest. In the 17th century some Puritans left England for the American colonies, creating Puritan settlements in towns such as Salem, Massachusetts.

Puritans believed they had a covenant with God—they were chosen through predestination to live a godly life—which redeemed them from sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne, descended from Puritans, also believed in the sinful nature of humans: "Young Goodman Brown" is an allegory of the Fall of Man, which precipitated Original Sin. Although continuing to live a godly life in spite of his doubts offers no redemption for Brown—"his dying hour was gloom"—Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter manages a kind of 19th-century Transcendentalist redemption by fulfilling her human potential.

Hawthorne's indictment of the Puritans, including his ancestors, has to do with their restrictive and punishing way of life and their oppression of anyone who did not agree with them, exactly the manner of oppression they had just escaped. The Puritans tortured and hanged Quakers in the mid-1600s, such as Mary Dyer (c. 1611), who dared to set foot in their colonies. They killed thousands of Native Americans in battles as well as torched settlements occupied by women, children, and elders in King Philip's War (1675–76). In the frenzy created by Cotton Mather (1663–1728), the Puritans convicted 33 accused witches, hanging 19 of them and pressing to death elderly Giles Corey. Rejecting this violence as antithetical to the Puritans' Christian values, Hawthorne includes reference to all of the above in "Young Goodman Brown," knowing his Hathorne ancestors were identified by name in the torture of Quakers and conviction of witches.


The Romantic era, beginning in Europe in the late 18th century, was characterized by a focus on the emotional over the rational. Pushing against the order and formality of Classicism and Neoclassicism and against the emphasis on reason of the Enlightenment, Romanticism embraces the exceptional individual moved by spirit, insight, and a connection to nature set against the backdrop of national pride. Hawthorne, for example, wrote about the common man (rather than the exceptional) in the newly formed nation, focusing on New England, his native setting. In addition to Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49), Walt Whitman (1819–92), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), and Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) are among the American writers of the Romantic movement.

The American Renaissance, an outgrowth of Romanticism starting in the late 1830s, included the aristocratic Boston "Brahmins" Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–94), the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, and the darker Romantic writers Hawthorne, Poe, and Herman Melville (1819–91). Also called the New England Renaissance, all but Poe hailed from the Northeast. This group laid the foundation for subsequent American writers, establishing the young nation's presence and status among the literary traditions of history and the world.


A movement of writers and philosophers with its locus in Concord, Massachusetts, New England transcendentalism rose out of Romanticism and the limitations of Unitarianism in the 19th century. The philosophy emphasized optimism and goodness of human nature over logic and reason, values of the Enlightenment.

Descended from a long line of ministers going back to Puritan days, Ralph Waldo Emerson found his beliefs deviating from those of the Unitarian establishment: he embraced self-reliance, intuition, and a personal spiritual connection with God, cutting out the middleman of the typical Church model. After resigning as a Unitarian minister, Emerson next spoke out against the scientific cause-and-effect model embraced by the rationalist philosophy taught at his alma mater Harvard University. He argued for the influence of free will and human potential, both intellectual and spiritual. This philosophy led to his work Nature (1836) and the magazine The Dial, both spearheading the Transcendentalist movement. Humans could transcend the rationalist world of facts and materialism through intellect, intuition, and a connection to nature.

Emerson became the anchor and centerpiece of the Transcendentalist enclave of Concord, often financially supporting Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Hawthorne (and their families) with wealth obtained from his late wife and speaking fees. Along with frequent visitor Margaret Fuller, early feminist and editor of The Dial, they lived and worked in close proximity, constantly conversing and influencing each other. Dedicated to social reform and abolition, many of these same philosophers were involved in the Brook Farm commune, a Utopian experiment embracing the dual nature of humans: the worker and the thinker. Although immune to Utopian optimism, Hawthorne participated in the Brook Farm project to save money for his marriage to Sophia Peabody.

Although Hawthorne was closely involved with his neighbors in the community—his wife and her sisters were also Transcendentalists—he never adopted their optimistic philosophies. Instead, his darker vision was ruled by the inevitability of guilt, sin, and evil. For example, Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of man, whereas Young Goodman Brown learns "evil is the nature of mankind." Bear in mind that "Young Goodman Brown" was written in 1835 just as Transcendentalism was starting and before Hawthorne had even met Emerson or Thoreau. In Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne may show the self-reliance Emerson valued, but her outcast status and the shunning of the community is in stark contrast to Emerson's concept of the "Over-soul," the shared consciousness uniting all living beings. A Hawthorne character might aspire to perfection, but the flawed nature of humanity falls short of attaining it.

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