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Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How do chance encounters affect Young Goodman Brown's intention to return home?

Young Goodman Brown tries to persuade the Dark Figure to let him go home because he fears breaking Faith's heart. The Dark Figure agrees, saying "go thy ways." The Dark Figure compares Faith to Goody Cloyse, who happens to appear along their route; he says Faith is worth 20 hobbling old women. Goody Cloyse is walking in the road because Goody Cory stole her broomstick; when Brown sees her he conceals himself, delaying his retreat. After Goody Cloyse disappears Brown again resolves to go home and sits stubbornly on a tree stump. The Dark Figure suggests Brown will change his mind eventually, and then the Dark Figure also disappears. Brown is relieved and glad to have a clear conscience, but then the sound of approaching riders makes him hide again, and again delays him. Brown feels sick, faint, and overwhelmed, but he is still intent on being good and going home. Finally Brown encounters the cloud above, speeding on its way to the witch meeting and carrying saints and sinners alike. Brown's disillusionment is almost complete, but still he knows he can go home to the purely good Faith—that is, until he hears her voice in the cloud and catches her falling pink ribbon. Now he has nothing to go home to.

What does the Dark Figure reveal about Young Goodman Brown's father, and how does that relate to his father's apparition at the meeting?

The Dark Figure makes it clear to Young Goodman Brown he knows just about everybody, including Brown's father and grandfather. They were both his good friends and "returned merrily after midnight" on many occasions. The Dark Figure says, "It was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war." Hawthorne mentions this war as another indictment of the Puritans; it was a bloody battle between the Puritans and the Wampanoag tribe of King Philip (formerly known as Metacom). Later at the witch meeting, Brown "could have well-nigh sworn that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke wreath." The ghost of Brown's father—appropriately riding a smoke wreath—encourages Brown to follow his example and commune with the Dark Figure and his people. This midnight meeting may be exactly the kind the elder Browns enjoyed with the Dark Figure.

What does the differing behavior of the apparition of Young Goodman Brown's mother to that of his father suggest about the community of devil worshippers?

Young Goodman Brown sees his father's apparition beckon him to join the evil assembly, "while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?" The despair and the warning suggest not everyone is thrilled to be included in the devil's community. Brown notes his mother's warning but "he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought." Perhaps his mother did not actively choose evil but was under the control of irresistible forces. The word despair appears again: "'Welcome,' repeated the fiend worshippers, in one cry of despair and triumph." Some may be in attendance for the merriment at midnight, but others may find themselves there against their wishes, eternally damned.

In "Young Goodman Brown" how does the Dark Figure deviate from the idea of the devil as an all-powerful villain?

The Dark Figure does not look particularly wealthy or powerful; rather his appearance is like that of other Puritan men, "simply clad" and "simple in manner." He can take on any form—say Old Goodman Brown or a Church leader—which is useful for camouflage or stealthy spying. However, the Dark Figure can fit in with the powerful as well, even with kings; and his animated serpent-shaped staff lends him a villainous air. But this villain also smiles, laughs, and feels sympathy, "as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race." He tells Young Goodman Brown and Faith "the fountain of all wicked arts" and evil impulses comes from within humans. No one—not even the devil—can act on, or activate, all these impulses. The devil is not all-powerful after all; the true source of evil is humankind.

How does Young Goodman Brown's life after the meeting compare or contrast to what the Dark Figure promises him?

The Dark Figure promises Young Goodman Brown he will see all sins and their locations: "By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places ... where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot." He says Brown also will see the sinful impulses inside people: "It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin." Brown is terrified of what he will see. What sins will he see in Faith? What sins will she see in him? He decides to resist the devil's baptism, yet after the meeting he still sees sin everywhere. Brown is so suspicious of everyone—the Church leaders, Faith, the whole world—that all becomes "one stain of guilt," and he spends the rest of his life fearing God's imminent retaliation against the hypocrites, himself included.

What is Hawthorne's purpose in anthropomorphizing the forest in "Young Goodman Brown"?

Hawthorne gives the forest human qualities to show that everything belongs to the devil: "to thee is this world given." The forest behaves as if it is under the Dark Figure's command, just like the devil's human followers. Evil surrounds and traps Young Goodman Brown when the trees barely stand aside and then close up behind him on the path. The forest creaks, howls, and roars—echoing Brown and mocking him. The wind laughs at him. All of Nature, the worshippers, and the Dark Figure are acting in concert, revealing the devil's power and ubiquity. There is nowhere to hide and nowhere to escape when Nature itself is an extension of the devil.

When Young Goodman Brown pulls a child away from Goody Cloyse, what is the symbolic significance of his action?

Although Hawthorne doesn't make any overt claims about the coexistence of good and evil in humankind, Young Goodman Brown protects a child and tries to preserve her innocence. "Goodman Brown snatched away the child as from the grasp of the fiend himself." Perhaps our evil nature can be thwarted, delayed, or minimized if we catch it early enough in our youth. The Puritans believed people are born sinful and must be taught as children how to be faithful. The Romantics, and especially the Transcendentalists, believed children are born pure and adults who observe children closely can learn to get close to the ideal natural state. Is Brown's "rescue" of the little girl the Romantic's action in a Puritan landscape? Maybe he is symbolically rescuing innocent, childlike Faith—something he couldn't do the night before. Perhaps Brown may still do good even if he sees only evil.

How does Young Goodman Brown's view of the Indians differ from Hawthorne's?

The Dark Figure helps Young Goodman Brown see the evildoings of his fellow Puritans. Brown starts his journey worrying that there is "a devilish Indian behind every tree"—typical of Puritans who might recall being at war with the Indians and therefore dehumanize them and equate them with supernatural evil (a common tendency in times of war). Hawthorne criticizes the Puritans' bigotry through the Dark Figure, who talks about the evil acts he and the elder Browns perpetrated. Brown's own father, supposedly a man "of prayer, and good works," burned down an Indian village with the devil's help. Later Deacon Gookin says "Indian powwows ... know almost as much deviltry as the best of us," a compliment in that context. Brown observes at the meeting, "Scattered also among their pale-faced enemies were the Indian priests, or powwows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft." The "pale-faced" English and the "Indian priests" are equals in the devil's community. As Brown's illusions fall away he realizes it's hypocritical to think of the Indians as devilish and to think of evil existing only outside the Puritan community. Evil has been right there in front of him all his life.

What, if anything, does the fictional Goody Cory have in common with the historical Martha Corey in "Young Goodman Brown"?

In the time leading up to the Salem witch trials, a spirit of accusation was in the air and petty grievances could lead to death. In the story Goody Cloyse accuses Goody Cory of stealing her broomstick, calling her "that unhanged witch." In Young Goodman Brown's perception, Goody Cory definitely is a witch. The real-life Martha Corey was accused of appearing in spirit and torturing local girls. She was the first upstanding churchwoman to be accused of witchcraft, and she professed her innocence to the end. She was convicted and hanged. Her 80-year-old husband, Giles Corey, was pressed to death (killed by a board weighed down with stones) for failing to enter a plea.

How is Hawthorne's treatment of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter and "Young Goodman Brown" similar and different?

Both works have themes of sin. "Young Goodman Brown" is concerned more with the Puritans' fixation on Original Sin—the sin with which one is born—and the sinful nature of humankind. The Scarlet Letter deals more with the sins people commit, the guilt they feel afterward, and the ways Puritans punished others for their failings. In both works Hawthorne skewers the hypocrisy of Puritans, who escaped persecution in England only to become purveyors of cruelty and persecution themselves. They ostracize Hester Prynne, whip Quakers in the street, and set fire to Indian villages, all while preaching, praying, and otherwise keeping up the appearance of good Christians.

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