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Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown | Symbols


The Forest

Dark, wild, and unpredictable, the forest is frequently associated with fear, menace, and evil. When one stays on the path the way is clear, safe, and known; many others have traveled that way. On the other hand the woods are full of uncertainty and surprises. The farther into the wilderness one goes, the further one is from the safety of town and neighbors.

Young Goodman Brown takes a last look at the village and the forsaken expression on his wife's face before he turns the corner and begins his journey into the woods: "He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind." The trees encroach ominously and surround him, trapping him and blocking his retreat and perhaps concealing enemies: "The traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude." Even the devil could be hiding in the forest, Brown thinks—and then he sees the Dark Figure.

Brown hides in the forest's gloom when he doesn't want Goody Cloyse to see him. When he claims a tree stump and refuses to continue with the Dark Figure, he is out in the open and thinking clearly; he plans to return home to Faith and resume his pious life. But when he hears riders approach Brown conceals himself again in the treacherous woods and is pulled back into the evil atmosphere. The supernatural events confuse and terrify him: first he hears but can't see Deacon Gookin and the minister, and then he hears voices from the speeding cloud.

With his faith and his Faith lost, Brown is swallowed up by the forest: "The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness." When he reaches the clearing where the meeting takes place he gains a corresponding clarity. Several trees are on fire, and the illumination relieves the woods' obscuring darkness. When the meeting ends Brown is alone in the dark forest again. He returns to the order and "safety" of his village in the light of day, but the chaos and darkness are now forever within him.

Serpent-Shaped Staff

The serpent is a symbol of evil and temptation, especially in the context of Christianity. The devil appeared as a serpent to tempt Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Dark Figure's staff is black, a color also associated with evil, and wriggles like a snake. Young Goodman Brown doubts his eyes, assuming it is a trick of the light until the stick moves again; the Dark Figure laughs so hard "his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy." The Dark Figure also uses the staff like a magic wand, throwing it at Goody Cloyse's feet to make her disappear. Later he begins work on a new walking stick; when he touches the wood of a branch it dries out instantly, as if his touch can convey the heat of hell. The devil's serpent-shaped staff is both a symbol and an instrument of evil.

Pink Ribbons

The pink ribbons on Faith's cap stand out from the brown and gray of Puritan attire and the austere New England landscape and simple wooden houses of Salem. One Puritan ideal was to purify the Church of Catholicism's gilded influence. Similarly the New England Puritans disdained the ornate fashions popular in Europe, believing clothing should reflect one's station in life.

On the surface Faith's pink ribbons reflect her girlishness, youth, and beauty. On a deeper level the pink ribbons represent Faith's innocence, goodness, and moral purity. Just as Young Goodman Brown can see Faith's pink ribbons from a distance, she represents a beacon of good faith and trust in a moral order. Nathaniel Hawthorne has a clear purpose in ensuring the reader identifies the ribbons with Faith. Later one wafts down from the mysterious cloud carrying townspeople to the meeting. Brown thinks he hears Faith's voice in the cloud, and her presence is confirmed by the tangible proof of a pink ribbon in his hand. All that sweetness and innocence is about to be corrupted, and Brown is distraught.

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