Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Young Goodman Brown | Themes

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Disillusionment

Young Goodman Brown is first disillusioned when the Dark Figure reveals he was close friends with Brown's father and grandfather. Then Brown observes pious Church members and leaders proceeding to the mysterious meeting: Goody Cloyse, who taught Brown his catechism, is revealed to be a potion-mixing, broomstick-riding witch, and Deacon Gookin and the minister have corresponding leadership positions in an evil community. Everything Brown believed about these individuals proves illusory; this discovery makes him question all aspects of his faith.

Brown also is disillusioned when he witnesses the close association of the godly and the ungodly; first he hears them laughing together on the cloud, and later he sees them rubbing elbows at the meeting. He expects them to be mutually repelled and disgusted, but instead they worship in communion as equals. This mixing of the godly and the ungodly is a stark contrast to the Puritan notion of being chosen by God. As a Puritan, Brown was raised to believe he must live a holy life and banish sin. He might not have been startled to find non-Puritans worshipping the devil, but he is shocked and disillusioned to see Faith at the meeting. Even his pure, angelic wife has evil hidden somewhere in her soul.

These revelations dismantle Brown's ordered Puritanical worldview. The illusions of godliness, holiness, and purity fall away. When Brown's disillusionment is complete and his faith lost, evil rushes to fill the void. Without his illusions Brown sees humanity's true nature: evil and sinfulness.

Sin

Sin is first suggested when Young Goodman Brown won't tell his wife where he's going or why; it's not a lie but an omission. He even puts the blame on her: "Dost thou doubt me already?" Readers never learn of his plans, but it seems he is about to stray from his usual goodness; he tells himself that after this one night he will resume his pious life with his pure, faithful wife and be assured a place in heaven.

When Brown meets the Dark Figure, the theme of sin deepens, begging comparison between Brown's crisis of faith and the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. The devil, taking the form of a serpent in the garden, tempted Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Until that moment they had been blissfully ignorant, their lives perfect, but they fell to the devil's persuasion and their new knowledge brought them shame, suffering, and death. It also brought a legacy of original sin for the future of mankind.

The Dark Figure with his serpent staff is no less the devil than the snake in the Garden of Eden, and he is just as supernaturally irresistible: "The elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path, discoursing so aptly that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor than to be suggested by himself." The Dark Figure so skillfully plants ideas in Brown's head that Brown believes them to be his own.

Like Adam and Eve, Brown and Faith are blissful in their innocence. Nathaniel Hawthorne never states exactly what "fruit" the devil offers Brown to start The Fall, but later he promises Brown and Faith that baptism will give them knowledge of good and evil, allowing them to see all their neighbors' sins. Brown and Faith are on the brink as Adam and Eve once were, about to "eat the fruit"; but they're filled with dread, not longing. They stop just short of the baptism, but the end result is similar. Brown, instead of gaining knowledge of good and evil, sees only evil. He is forever doomed to see everyone he knows as evil behind a mask of piety. His shame is for his own sinfulness; his suffering is a life without faith, expecting the vengeance of God every minute; and his death is without reconciliation.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is a kind of lie. When someone's actions contradict professed beliefs, the actions make the words into lies. Goody Cloyse, for example, the hobbling old lady who teaches innocent children to reject Satan and all his works, flies on a broomstick to rub elbows with criminals and worship the devil. The Dark Figure offers more extreme examples: old men seducing young maids, goodwives poisoning their husbands, sons killing their fathers for money, and new mothers killing their babies. These men and women are the upstanding, devout pillars of the Puritan community Young Goodman Brown has known all his life; now unmasked they're revealed to be more sinful than he could ever have imagined. Other sinners include widely respected local politicians and leaders. Brown is distressed to learn of their hypocrisy, but as his faith shatters a worse realization takes over: his own life has been a lie. He questions his own goodness and piety and finds himself wanting. His self-recrimination at his own hypocrisy shuts out his remaining faith. To Brown's mind the smallest portion of evil wipes out all goodness in the world.

Through the theme of hypocrisy, Hawthorne denounces his Puritan ancestors and Salem heritage for the wrongs done to Quakers, Native Americans, and accused witches. The contradiction he perceived between Puritans' pious standards and their violent behavior was reflected in many of his major works.

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