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Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In "Young Goodman Brown" why does the narrator say the Dark Figure spoke "as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race"?

According to the Bible, before Satan was the king of hell he was God's best friend and top angel. They had a disagreement, and God tossed him out of heaven. This story is central to understanding the duality of mankind—good and evil—central to much of literature. God made Adam and Eve good, but Satan gave them knowledge and thus the ability to see and do evil. In "Young Goodman Brown," an allegory for The Fall of Man, the devil tempts Young Goodman Brown with the offer of knowledge. Although Brown does not accept, he is forever changed by his encounter and comes to suspect evil from everyone. This is the human condition. Satan, once an angel, has some vestigial sympathy for the suffering of man. Sympathy for the devil goes both ways. The Dark Figure emphasizes that the human demand for evildoing far outstrips his supply. He calls it "the fountain of all wicked arts ... which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds."

After Young Goodman Brown tells Faith to resist the devil, what is the significance of the narrator's statement, "Whether Faith obeyed he knew not"?

At the fiery meeting in the clearing, Young Goodman Brown cries out to Faith to resist the Dark Figure; suddenly he finds himself alone in the clearing. Brown's impulse to reject the devil saves him—saves being a relative term since later it becomes clear his life is ruined even though he didn't submit to the devil's baptism. But what is Faith's experience? Does she also reject the devil either in her heart or aloud after Brown can no longer see or hear her? Even if she tells Brown later on in Salem that she did so, he won't believe her; by now he sees only hypocrisy and is convinced any apparent goodness is a lie. No evidence in the text suggests the couple ever discusses his journey or his "dream." Brown will reject and distrust Faith until his death.

Why does Hawthorne include the end of Young Goodman Brown's life in the story?

As in The Fall, the effects of submitting to temptation are irreversible. When Adam and Eve see their shame and their nakedness, they cannot unsee them. They live with the consequences of their choice and pass on Original Sin to their descendants. Hawthorne shows Young Goodman Brown does not resume his former life or reestablish trust and relationships. "A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream." Having embraced his own wickedness, Brown accepts the devil is behind all hypocrisy. He dies without reconciliation with God: "And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse ... they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."

What is Hawthorne's purpose in suggesting that perhaps Young Goodman Brown "only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting"?

Supernatural or surreal elements can keep readers at a distance from the plot and characters in a horror story. Hawthorne did not write the story merely to entertain or to give readers a scare they can quickly forget. Even if Young Goodman Brown's journey was a dream, the effects on his personality, behavior, and beliefs persist. Hawthorne gives the reader permission to believe it was a dream so they will take his message seriously. A 17th-century Puritan might have believed witch meetings took place in nearby forests, and they certainly might have dreamed of such things, but a 19th-century Romantic didn't need the symbol of a witch to believe evil is within all of us. Hawthorne wants readers to admit this truth instead of being hypocrites and acting holy. This, not entertainment, is his goal.

How does Hawthorne criticize the Puritans in "Young Goodman Brown"?

Hawthorne struggled with the legacy of his Puritan ancestors; to his eyes their violent and judgmental actions ran counter to their Christian ideals. He even viewed recent family misfortunes as a karmic payback of sorts. Hawthorne held Puritans accountable for their evil ways, yet he believed all humans to be inherently evil. The essence of his complaint then became the Puritans' hypocrisy. Born with Original Sin, Puritans devoted themselves to God in hope that He would alleviate their sin. But if they knew they were evil, why did they judge and condemn others? That is what Hawthorne was unable to forgive. In "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne exposes Puritans' hypocrisy through the characters of Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the Minister, all of whom behave as exemplary Christians by day but worship the devil in the dark forest at midnight. The hypocrite tally increases steadily throughout the story; people from far and wide, from all stations of life, the godly and ungodly, gather with the devil by night despite their outwardly pious (or impious) lives. Young Goodman Brown sees them for what they are, but in the morning the godly again wear their masks of goodness.

What does the character Young Goodman Brown represent in the story?

Young Goodman Brown is a plain, everyman character, "a simple husbandman," as he says. The name Goodman would be apt even if it were not a standard Puritan form of address because Brown is a good man, a devout Christian. He seems perhaps luckier than the average man because he has an adoring wife. However, even Brown has a flicker of evil in his soul, and Hawthorne uses him as an example of the rare Puritan who realizes his hypocrisy. When Brown first meets the Dark Figure, Brown says of his family and himself, "We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness." After his faith in others, in himself, and in God is shattered, Brown becomes keenly aware "of all that was wicked in his heart."

In "Young Goodman Brown" how do the past-tense narration and third-person limited point of view contribute to the story?

The past-tense narration is effective, especially because the narrator knows about the end of Young Goodman Brown's life, which tells readers his meeting with the devil must have occurred many years before. The point of view stays with Brown, so readers understand the action only through his eyes. His thoughts are conveyed as dialogue, as when he cries out to the empty air, or with the speech tag "thought"—for example, "'But where is Faith?' thought Goodman Brown." This narrative style allows Hawthorne to give Brown absolute authority over his experience. If Brown says he saw the devil, no other character's perspective contradicts his own. Hawthorne's purpose would be undermined if, for example, readers could learn what Faith thinks. Was she really at the meeting? Did she have the same "dream"? Did she renounce the devil? Another character's perspective would confirm or deny the truth of the witch-meeting. Instead, experiencing events through Brown alone means readers must make sense of his night and its consequences.

How do Young Goodman Brown's and the Dark Figure's expectations for their evening differ?

Young Goodman Brown intends to stray from the path of goodness for just one evening and then return to his wife as if nothing happened: "after this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven." He won't share his plans with Faith; Brown says it "would kill her to think it" and "it would break her dear little heart." Clearly he knows he's going to do something wrong, and he hurries to do it, "making more haste on his present evil purpose." When he comes to regret his plan, he tries to turn back and head home but he can't; the die is cast. Soon the meeting plans take shape: Goody Cloyse notes "a nice young man" will join the assembly, and Deacon Gookin and the Minister say "a goodly young woman" will join. Readers may correctly anticipate the man and woman are Brown and his Faith, whom the Dark Figure intends to recruit. In contrast to Brown, who thinks the evening of evil will be an isolated event, the Dark Figure is thinking of the long term; he intends to baptize them into his legion and own their souls forever.

How do Young Goodman Brown's expectations for Faith's evening differ from what happens, and how are the events foreshadowed?

Young Goodman Brown says to his wife, "Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee." Although she is troubled with fretful dreams—foreshadowing the evil that's to come—Brown believes his wife will be safe in their house and in their bed. This night is a witch sabbath, which Brown and Faith allude to in conversation, so staying indoors is well advised. The Dark Figure's meeting and "deviltry" will take place away from town, deep in the woods, so Brown doesn't expect witches or the devil to come for Faith, especially if she doesn't seek them out. In contrast to Brown's expectations, Faith's troubling dreams foretell the harm that will befall her. She is carried away from their home on a cloud, and then her voice begs for something, but it is unclear what: "There was one voice of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain." Is Faith begging the witches to let her go? She later appears at the meeting between two witches, but is she there willingly? Does she renounce the devil when the moment comes? Brown may never know. Maybe it was all a dream; maybe Faith wakes up the same innocent woman she was at sunset the day before. It hardly matters, though. After that night Brown forever looks at her suspiciously, and thus she suffers another harm: she loses her happy marriage.

How does the symbol of the serpent-shaped staff foreshadow events at the meeting in "Young Goodman Brown"?

The serpent is a symbol of evil; it's the form taken by the devil to tempt Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This symbol makes readers aware of parallels between "Young Goodman Brown" and The Fall; in this case the devil carries a serpent-shaped staff instead of appearing as a serpent himself. The animated serpent staff wriggles as if it is laughing along with the Dark Figure. This foretells other impossible or supernatural events and suggests the devil's power. As in The Fall, Young Goodman Brown and Faith stand with the devil between them, tempting them to evil: "And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world." The Dark Figure promises them knowledge, just as the serpent promised Adam and Eve. Their decision will have consequences for eternity. Finally when the serpent staff makes Goody Cloyse disappear, it foreshadows the moment when the entire scene in the clearing disappears.

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