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Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Hawthorne establish the setting in "Young Goodman Brown"?

Hawthorne skillfully establishes the setting as a Puritan community in Massachusetts. The protagonist's title is Goodman, the Puritans' equivalent of the modern-day Mister. Also Salem is a town well known as the location of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Readers can glean that the story is set around this time period by mention of King William, who ruled England, Ireland, and Scotland from 1689 until 1702. Further, the character Goody Cloyse—Goody is the Puritans' equivalent of Missus—mentions Goody Cory, "that unhanged witch," suggesting the setting is just before the witch trials, during which the real-life Martha Corey was hanged. Young Goodman Brown leaves his house in Salem village at sunset and passes a meetinghouse on the corner; not far from there the path takes him into an increasingly dense forest. Night in the forest is the setting for the middle of the story, and then it moves back to Salem village.

How does the setting—the location and time period—of "Young Goodman Brown" affect the plot?

Readers familiar with the Puritans' history in Salem will find that even the most seemingly innocent action and dialogue contribute to an ominous tone. "Prithee put off your journey," Faith says sadly, watching Young Goodman Brown with "a melancholy air." When Brown says, "No harm will come to thee," the setting makes this seem unlikely. Faith's fear of being alone with her dreams also foreshadows doom: "A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she's afeard of herself sometimes." Brown is concerned by the look on her face as she says it. When she asks him not to go out on this night, "of all nights in the year," it is clear they both know something is unusually dangerous about this specific date; because of the setting readers will rightly suspect it has something to do with witches and the devil.

How does Hawthorne characterize the protagonist Young Goodman Brown?

Young Goodman Brown first appears as a loving husband, referring to his new bride, Faith, as his "sweet, pretty wife" and kissing her goodbye. He playfully teases her about doubting him so soon after their wedding. It hurts him to leave her on his errand; he wants to protect her and her faith, and he intends to resume a life of goodness after this one night. His voice shakes when he meets the Dark Figure, and he tries to abort the mission, saying he has "scruples touching the matter." He identifies himself with his perceptions of his father and grandfather: "We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness." A modest Puritan, he calls himself "a simple husbandman." Yet for some unknown reason Brown agreed to a meeting with the Dark Figure and one night's flirtation with evil.

What problems does the character Young Goodman Brown confront in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown"?

At first it seems Young Goodman Brown's only problem is that his wife, Faith, wants him to stay home instead of going on a mysterious errand. After he meets with the Dark Figure, the tension escalates. Brown wants to return home, but the Dark Figure continues to prod him forward. As they travel toward their meeting, Brown sees and hears his religious role models and tries to avoid them; he doesn't want to be seen accompanying the devil. Brown struggles with the repercussions of what he has set in motion. How will he get out of this predicament without losing his soul? The Dark Figure has supernatural powers of persuasion, so resistance is futile. The stakes get even higher when Brown realizes Faith has been captured by the witches. Now he wonders how to save both himself and his wife.

Which types of conflict does Young Goodman Brown face: man versus man, man versus nature, and/or man versus self?

Young Goodman Brown's problem—trying to resist evil and return to goodness—suggests a "man versus self" conflict. The smallest flicker of evil within Brown makes him set in motion a plan that only his innate goodness can help him resist. But the Dark Figure's claim that "evil is the nature of mankind" makes the odds insurmountable. One form of evil Brown must confront is the Dark Figure—this is a conflict of "man versus man," although the latter "man" possesses supernatural powers. The forest and the fire are also manifestations of evil, so they represent a conflict of "man versus nature" (or Nature, as Hawthorne and other Romanticists refer to it).

How does Young Goodman Brown change during the story?

At the story's start Young Goodman Brown is the quintessential good man: pious and believing in his own goodness and that of his family and friends. Brown's devout and faithful wife is proof he is deserving of God's favor. He wants to hold tight to all this goodness and move past the temporary glimmer of temptation that spurs him to meet the Dark Figure. He is shocked to learn of Goody Cloyse's hypocrisy, but he resolves it has little to do with him. Then he is shocked again by Deacon Gookin and the minister's "deviltry," but he digs in his heels and vows, "I will yet stand firm against the devil!" The biggest character development comes when Brown sees his wife's pink ribbon float down from the cloud: "My Faith is gone!" he cries, referring to both his beliefs and his wife. He is convinced there is no good in the world; all is evil. The once sweet, loving husband and good man is now "maddened with despair"; he flies through the wilderness toward the devil's meeting, gesturing and saying "nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown." When he arrives at the meeting and doesn't see Faith, he feels a moment's hope. Soon, however, he and his wife face each other at the pulpit. Some remaining goodness within Brown causes him to cry out and resist the devil, but he never finds out whether Faith does the same. Consequently, for the rest of his life he doubts her goodness and sees only evil all around him. The man of faith and trust now sees all goodness as a lie.

How does Hawthorne characterize Young Goodman Brown's wife, Faith?

Young and pretty, wearing a cap with pink ribbons, Faith is "aptly named"—she is faithful as a Puritan and, no doubt, as a wife. She sadly entreats Young Goodman Brown to stay home with her; she is afraid to be alone with her dreams. She watches him leave with "a melancholy air," and he feels guilty as he goes. Brown calls her "poor little Faith" and speaks of "her dear little heart," and these phrases, along with the pink ribbons she wears, create a portrait of childlike innocence. Faith even skips out to greet her husband when he returns from his rendezvous with the devil. Her wifely devotion endures even when he no longer returns her affection: she stays with Brown until his dying hour, having provided him children and grandchildren, and buries him without words of hope.

How does Young Goodman Brown's view of Faith change during the story?

At first Young Goodman Brown appears to take his sweet, pretty wife for granted. He can take a night off from purity and leave her to fend for herself on the most devilish evening of the year. Regret sets in quickly, though; as he looks back at her "his heart smote him." Her faith and purity are his guide, and soon after meeting the Dark Figure he wants desperately to return to her arms. When he thinks of her he resists evil: "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!" Looking at her face he resists even at the last moment before the devil takes him, but he does not know whether she resists. Faith, his paragon of virtue, becomes an empty shell to him. He can never trust her again. He passes by her sternly in the street instead of receiving her kisses. Through the years he wakes with nightmares but shrinks from her comforting arms.

In "Young Goodman Brown" what is the significance of Faith's name?

The narrator tells us Faith is "aptly named." Every mention of her name can be read with a lowercase f as well as an uppercase F: "My love and my Faith ... this one night must I tarry away from thee." "Faith kept me back a while." "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!" "My Faith is gone! ... Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." "But where is Faith?" "Faith! Faith!" cried the husband, "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one." Faith and faith are the driving force behind Young Goodman Brown's decisions, and he wishes desperately to return to her and to his ideals. After the hideous revelations of the witch meeting, Young Goodman Brown rejects the religion and values he once held dear: "Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith." When Brown dies in hopelessness and gloom, "and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith," his wife and his beliefs wait at the fringes in case he changed his mind.

In "Young Goodman Brown" what is the significance of the pink ribbons on Faith's cap?

At first the ribbons establish Faith as young, even childlike in her innocence and purity. She is old enough to be a wife, though, and she is in love with her husband. Her wish to adorn herself corresponds with her role as a newlywed. When the ribbons are first mentioned, Faith is letting the wind play with them; the wind represents change. When the ribbons are next mentioned, they are Faith's identifying feature. At third mention the cheerful ribbons contrast with the melancholy look of longing on Faith's face. The next time the ribbons appear Young Goodman Brown snatches one from the branches after hearing Faith's voice in the speeding cloud. Now he can no longer tell himself he is just hearing the wind; her ribbon, her identifying accessory, is in his hand. Brown concludes his wife and his beliefs have gone to the devil, and he falls deeper into evil. When the frightful night is over, Faith appears with her cap and ribbons intact, perhaps to suggest it was all a dream and she is the same good and pious woman Brown believed her to be at the story's start. Yet whatever the truth may be, Brown sees her as potentially evil and untrustworthy.

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