Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown | Summary

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Summary

Young Goodman Brown Leaves Salem Village

Puritan Young Goodman Brown kisses his wife, Faith, goodbye at sunset as he sets out from Salem village on a journey. His "aptly named" wife entreats her husband to stay home with her "this night ... of all nights in the year." Brown says his journey must be accomplished on this specific night before sunrise and asks if she doubts him already, after just three months of marriage. He tells her to say her prayers and go to sleep to keep from being frightened. When he looks back he sees Faith watching him walk away. He wonders if her dreams revealed the intent of his journey, and he vows to never leave her again after this one night.

The Journey

Brown takes a dark and lonely road, so deeply wooded it could conceal hordes of beings hiding just off the path—or even the devil. Just past a bend in the road Brown observes the Dark Figure seated beneath a tree. The Dark Figure tells Brown he is late and begins walking with him. Brown shakes a bit even though his meeting with the Dark Figure is no surprise—this meeting is his intended destination. The Dark Figure is about 50 years old, and he resembles Brown's father in looks and dress. His walking stick looks like a wriggling black serpent; perhaps this is an optical illusion in the darkening woods.

Brown wants to turn back, but the Dark Figure says Brown can always turn back later. Brown worries he is the first of his family to attempt such an errand and keep such company. The Dark Figure corrects him: in fact Brown's father and grandfather were his good friends. Brown says his relatives never mentioned the Dark Figure and would not tolerate wickedness, but he starts dropping the names of all his high-level friends, including churchmen. Brown notes that powerful people may live by different standards; he is just a simple man. If he keeps going on this journey, he wonders how he will ever face his minister again. This query causes the older man to laugh uncontrollably.

Brown still wants to turn back; he's afraid if he keeps going he'll break Faith's heart. The Dark Figure draws his attention to the hobbling old woman ahead in the road; it's pious mentor Goody Cloyse, who taught Brown catechism or principles of the Christian religion. Afraid Goody Cloyse will see him with the Dark Figure, Brown takes a shortcut through the woods, but he watches the Dark Figure approach Goody Cloyse. She yells, "The devil!" and the Dark Figure says she recognizes him. She says yes, even though he appears as Old Goodman Brown, Young Goodman Brown's grandfather. She complains her broomstick was stolen and she already used the concoction meant to make it fly, but she doesn't want to miss the meeting at which "a nice young man" is to be inducted. Therefore, she suggests taking the Dark Figure's arm to get there faster. He offers his walking stick instead. Brown sees the Dark Figure throw the serpent staff at the woman's feet, and then she is gone.

The two men walk on; the Dark Figure is so persuasive Brown believes it's his own idea to continue. The Dark Figure takes a piece of new wood for his walking stick, and as he strips away twigs and leaves, the stick dries out and ages. When Brown sits down suddenly and refuses to proceed, the Dark Figure says he will change Brown's mind and gives him the new walking stick to help him travel faster. Then the Dark Figure disappears. Brown congratulates himself on turning away from wickedness, relieved that now he can meet the eyes of his spiritual leaders and pass the night with his pure and innocent wife, Faith. When he hears horses approaching Brown hides, still ashamed of his earlier plans for the evening.

Brown hears two serious voices and sees branches move as if people are passing on horseback, but he can't see anyone. He believes he recognizes the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin. Deacon Gookin's voice says community members from far and wide are coming to tonight's meeting, including Indians who "know almost as much deviltry as the best of us." Additionally "a goodly young woman" will join their ranks tonight. The minister's voice says to hurry.

As the hooves clatter away Brown tries not to faint. He looks up, by now doubting heaven even exists, but the sky and the stars look the same as ever. He vows, "With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!"

A cloud passes over the stars, carrying with it voices of pious churchgoers and ungodly tavern patrons alike. Brown doubts what he hears—maybe it is all just the sounds of the forest. Now he hears a young woman's voice begging for something. "Faith!" Brown yells, and his cry's echoes seem to mock him. He listens for a reply but hears a scream. Voices get louder again and trail off into laughter. The cloud moves into the distance, and the sky is clear again. A pink ribbon flutters down. "My Faith is gone!" he says. The world already belongs to the devil.

The Meeting

Brown grabs the walking stick, which flies him down the road until the path closes up and he is in wilderness, "still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil." Although the forest is filled with terrifying sounds, Brown is as frightening as anything else out there. He summons all the evildoers, saying they should fear him.

Gesturing wildly, shouting in laughter, and blaspheming, Brown flies on through the dark forest until he sees a red light like a bonfire. He thinks he hears church hymns, but the sounds morph into sounds of the wilderness, and his cries are lost in the sound.

A clearing in the woods reveals a stone pulpit and a huge congregation illuminated by fire. Brown catalogs the attendees: council board members, church leaders, the governor's wife and her friends, honorable wives, widows, spinsters, virgins, Deacon Gookin, and the minister. To his surprise they are joined by the least reputable people of the village, known for their vices and crimes. Neither group avoids the other—they are united. Even Indian priests, considered the most terrifying, are among their number. Brown doesn't see Faith and hopes she isn't there.

Through a fiery arch on the pulpit, the Dark Figure calls for the converts. Brown steps forward in admission of his own wickedness. He perceives his father's ghost calling him forward and his mother's ghost halting him. The minister and Deacon Gookin grab him and hurry him to the pulpit. A slender, veiled woman is brought forward. The Dark Figure details the crowd's sins: old men seducing young maids, wives poisoning their husbands, young men hastening their inheritances, and new mothers killing their newborn babies. Brown and Faith, now present, soon will perceive sins everywhere; the world is stained with guilt. The Dark Figure says Brown and Faith relied on each other in the hope of some goodness in the world but now they will know better: "Evil is the nature of mankind."

The congregation says welcome, and the Dark Figure prepares a baptism. Brown and Faith tremble as they hesitate on the brink of evil; soon they will see all the sins and wretchedness around them. Brown cries out to Faith to resist.

Suddenly Brown is alone; all is quiet. The rock pulpit is cold, and the formerly fiery branches are wet with dew.

Young Goodman Brown Returns to Salem Village

The next morning Brown staggers back to Salem village and sees the minister, Deacon Gookin, and Goody Cloyse at their usual holy tasks. Faith, with her pink ribbons, runs to him joyfully and almost kisses him in the street, but Brown walks by sternly.

Throughout his life Brown never escapes the effects of his experience. He hears the evil song in place of psalms, expects the roof to cave in on all the hypocrites in church, and scowls at his wife and family when they pray. Although his wife, children, grandchildren, and neighbors attend his funeral, Young Goodman Brown's death is as miserable as his life.

Analysis

Historical Setting

The setting of "Young Goodman Brown" is Salem village, a Puritan settlement, and not coincidentally Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace and ancestral home. The story takes place around the time of the infamous witch trials of 1692, a dark era in American history and one in which Hawthorne's own ancestor participated as a judge. Although Hawthorne does not explicitly state a date in "Young Goodman Brown," he orients the reader by saying the Dark Figure wouldn't be out of place in King William's court: "He had an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and who would not have felt abashed at the governor's dinner table or in King William's court, were it possible that his affairs should call him thither." Hawthorne is referring to King William III, who ruled England, Ireland, and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. This is the present day in the story, and the witch trials fit within the span of those dates.

A generation earlier the Dark Figure helped Goodman Brown, the protagonist's father, burn an Indian village during King Phillip's War of 1675–76. Two generations back, the Dark Figure helped Old Goodman Brown, the protagonist's grandfather, whip a Quaker woman in the streets of Salem, another detail taken from Hawthorne's own ancestry. The Quakers arrived in Puritan territory in the 1650s. These setting details reveal not only when the story takes place but also the backstory of generation after generation of evil Browns.

The Problem

At first Young Goodman Brown's problem seems a simple one: He must leave home for the night, and his sweet, perhaps petulant, young wife begs him not to go. One unusual detail is the time of his departure—why would he begin a "journey" at sunset? Brown says he can accomplish his aim only between sunset and sunrise. There are other odd details: Faith refers to Brown's "journey" but neither she nor Brown is more specific about it, Faith is fearful of being left alone with her nightmares, and she is concerned that he is leaving on this night in particular: "Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year." What is so worrisome about this night? Clearly Brown and Faith know something readers do not. Hawthorne never explicitly states what the "journey" is about; he simply shows events unfolding as Brown experiences them. For his part Brown keeps the purpose of his mission secret from Faith, contributing to her "melancholy air."

Later in the story readers may infer the meeting in the clearing is a witches' Sabbath, often held on specific nights: solstices, equinoxes, the eve of May Day, and All Hallows Eve. Like the rest of the 17th-century world, the Salem Puritans believed in and feared witches. Surely a pious young Puritan couple would stay in when witches are flying to their Sabbath. Hawthorne foreshadows that Brown will pay dearly for rejecting such wisdom; as Brown looks at his wife, Hawthorne writes, "Methought as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight." Brown thinks his wife may have premonitions of his true plans, whatever they may be. Does he set off on this journey to satisfy his curiosity? Does he want to prove his own goodness to himself? Does he hope to defeat evil? Whatever he hopes to gain the prospect is irresistible, but Brown already looks ahead to when his journey ends. He says of Faith, "After this one night I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven."

Allegory

With the first instance of rising action, Brown's fate is sealed, though he does not know it yet. He has arranged a meeting with the Dark Figure, and keeping the appointment puts him on a course from which he can no longer deviate, try as he might. Brown wants to turn around, go home, and avoid breaking Faith's heart as the Dark Figure exposes his affiliation with generations of Browns and other prominent people in politics and the Church. Brown's illusions of Puritan piety begin to fall away—an important theme in the story. As the Dark Figure later says, "Evil is the nature of mankind." Hypocrisy is another important theme: Brown is disgusted by the hypocrisy of seemingly pious Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the minister, but he witnesses this hypocrisy only because of the wickedness growing within him.

The story is an allegory of the devil leading man to acknowledge the evil within himself and the inevitability of sin: the Dark Figure is the devil, and Brown is the good man who has every reason to stay good, including a devoted wife. The serpent staff, akin to the biblical snake in the Garden of Eden, represents the irresistible impulses or temptations in every human's heart. Brown, the everyman, cannot help but turn the corner on that Salem road and see what the devil has in store.

Young Goodman Brown Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Brown leaves Salem at sunset on an unnamed errand.

Rising Action

2 Brown meets the Dark Figure in the road, and they walk on.

3 The Dark Figure makes Goody Cloyse disappear with his staff.

4 Brown overhears Deacon Gookin and the minister.

5 A cloud passes above carrying voices, including Faith's.

6 Brown flies to the meeting.

Climax

7 The Dark Figure almost inducts Brown and Faith; they resist.

Falling Action

8 Brown, suddenly alone, staggers back to Salem.

Resolution

9 Suspicious of the pious, Brown lives sadly, dies in gloom.

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