Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.
A Well Known Short Story in American Literature
The following is an essay about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown”. The story is often taught at American high schools and colleges.
My take on the story is that it conveys the winnowing of a man’s faith while living in Puritan Salem. The story also shows what pressures were on women at that time and their limitations to liberate themselves from strict religious ideologies.
Here are some facts about the story and author:
- “Young Goodman Brown” was published anonymously in 1835 in The New-England Magazine. It was published a second time under Hawthorne’s name in 1846 in Mosses from an Old Manse.
- The story takes place in 17th-century Puritan New England.
- The story focuses on the tensions in Puritan culture.
- Hawthorne was born in Salem in 1804. His great-great-great-grandfather, William, was a Puritan and the first of his family to emigrate from England. William was known for his harsh sentencing as a judge. His son, John, was a judge who oversaw the Salem witch trials.
A Closer Look at "Young Goodman Brown" and the Problems of Faith
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” focuses on a Puritan follower whose faith is challenged by the traditions and pedigree of the Salem community; the author painted the town as a place for “hypocrites who covered hideous crimes with a veneer of piety and respectability” (Hawthorne 318).
Hawthorne’s story focuses on Goodman and his wife, Faith. Over the course of the story, Goodman’s belief that he is in a good Christian society is distorted. The character loses faith in his religion; he questions things he previously accepted without hesitation.
Hawthorne described Faith as a conventional woman who was sweet (Hawthorne 309), pretty (Hawthorne 309), and God-fearing. She exemplifies ideals from 17th-century Puritan New England.
As the story progresses, the reader finds there is more to Faith than meets the eyes. It can be argued that she has a harder time resisting the whims of the town because of her gender. She has more at stake to lose than Goodman.
Young Goodman Brown never knew Faith’s real intent when it came to religion; “whether Faith obeyed he knew not” (317). More than likely Faith never really faltered from gospel teachings, but according to strict Puritans, she was less than pious. She was bound to an extremely feminine role that suppressed and silenced her. Women in this society were considered second-class citizens, if that. It’s important for readers to ask the following question: How could Goodman’s wife really deduce for herself what true faith is outside of a dogmatic society like Puritan Salem?
In the story, Goodman and Faith are in a young marriage. They’ve been together for three months. They live in a society that would try to mold them into a couple that’s a shining example for others. They would have pressures put on them to be upstanding Christians, family-focused, and sinless. It’s important to note that the word “sin” is incredibly ambiguous, so the boundaries of what it is and isn’t can change at the drop of a hat. Those who are in control of Salem have the most say on the definition of sin. They’re the ones who get to decide what is a witch and what isn’t. This isn’t a lawful society; it’s chaotic.
Young Goodman Brown died wary of those around him. He was an embittered cynic. The story concludes: “no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 318); translation: he died without finding another person who was also skeptical of the practices in Salem. He didn’t have a friend or confidante.
We can deduce that Faith was too afraid to deviate from her community. Goodman did see in her that she seemed to question society a little; he observed “as she spoke there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But no, it would kill her to think it” (Hawthorne 309).
Again, even though she may have thought about questioning society, her gender role constrained her from acting out of tradition. Far worse things were more likely to happen to her than Goodman if she questioned her community, including torture, imprisonment, and death.
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Goodman's Wife Is a Metaphor for His Faith
In the story, Faith’s name works as a double entendre (a word or phrase open to two interpretations). Both Young Goodman Brown’s wife and his own faith contradict and support each other to create a highly nuanced narrative. His wife is a metaphor for his actual faith.
The word “faith” is almost interchangeable in some places as Brown’s wife and/or as his own inner struggle. Take this quote from the story for example: “And what calm sleep would be his that very night, which was to have been spent so wickedly, but so purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith” (Hawthorne 312). This line both expresses how Goodman desires to be in his wife’s arms and to be comforted in bed by his thoughts and beliefs.
There is little indication that Faith questions and works through problems of faith, at least to the level Goodman does. The paradox: how can there really be faith if it is never tested?
According to the story, Faith does not actually grow in her faith but rather accepts her conditions, and for the most part, lives her life complacently without actually feeling any conviction for the crimes of Salem — the burning of supposed witches and the persecution of those that were different, such as the Quakers.
Faith Forced to Deny Her Own Agency
What could be worse than telling the brain it is not allowed to think because it is too dangerous? Faith was afraid to think for herself because it “would kill her to think” (Hawthorne 309). If she started talking and questioning the actions of her community, she could be accused of witchery and then hung on a tree or burned at the stake.
Sadly, the treatment she endured wasn’t a new or brief thing that women encountered. Women for a large part of history have been treated as second class, and even denied an education because of their gender — and, in several parts of the world, this sexism continues.
According to Steven Lynn, what is incredibly harsh for women is when they are unallowed or unable to speak their own minds. For if a woman is “unable to make a creative room of her own, [she is then] being forced instead to suppress her unique voice and attempt to fit into the mansions of the male” (Lynn 236). Women were encouraged not to think or question. It was too dangerous to rock the status quo in colonial Puritan times. Faith doesn’t have a lot of leverage to express her true thoughts and feelings.
Had Faith been able to live outside the limitations of her society, she may have been able to free herself and realize how blind she was to the metaphorical chains that constrained her. Hawthorne’s story captures the powerlessness women felt during this strange time in American history. The author suggests it was so pervasively bad that women would hope their husbands would die so they could be freed:
"Whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom… and how fair damsels – blush not, sweet ones – have dug little graves in the garden." (Hawthorne 316)
Persons Forced to Behave in Certain Ways
Society can do great harm to individuals by preventing them from thinking or acting against established norms. If people are punished for innovation it will be much easier for those in charge to promote unquestioned evils. People must have the freedom to think for themselves; they need to discern right from wrong. The problem is when we take on a group mindset and become diehard believers, even at the sake of sanity. Conspiracy groups take advantage of people who accept things blindly rather than those who greet things with a touch of skepticism.
Critical thinking, a love for studies backed by data, and expert opinions can set people free. Following a demagogue or group of demagogues ends in ruin.
“Young Goodman Brown” shows how even though skepticism can be enlightening and allows you to see the evils of society, it can also be isolating and depressing. Your awareness excludes you from the bandwagon (this is both a cure and a curse).
Salem was controlled by radicals who tortured women and men who didn’t adhere to strict religious-based laws, ordinances, and the like. People were punished for anything, and those in charge often took advantage of the situation by turning property into forfeiture. At the heart of Puritan Salem were greed and control. Those in charge (Puritan men) were very good at getting people to do what they wanted. They’d hang those who were recently executed outside church buildings to remind people to be obedient or else face a similar grisly fate. Those in charge created hysteria to force control.
Young Goodman Brown and Faith were “the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world” (Hawthorne 317). Sadly, Faith either didn’t feel fully convicted by Salem’s crimes or she ignored those convictions for her own safety. She had “such joy… she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village” (Hawthorne 317). We can safely assume she ends up aligning with Salem because of the sad quote about Goodman’s grave. He was a lonely man that the town didn’t know.
From the beginning, Faith is simple, pious, submissive, and obedient. When Goodman left for his journey he cried to her, “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee” (Hawthorne 309). And then he left her safe at home. He merely “looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons” (Hawthorne 309). She clearly longed to be with him and wanted to either embark on his journey with him or have him safe at home with her.
Goodman wanted to protect his faith. He didn’t want to distort it, but through his journey (whether real or imagined) he came to realize the hypocrisy of his Puritan brothers and sisters.
Faith stayed home “in spite of her pink ribbons” (Hawthorne 309) and she had her own “melancholy air” (Hawthorne 309), so it is evident that “she talks of dreams, too” (Hawthorne 309) and that “as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight” (Hawthorne 309).
Basically, she wanted to go, but she felt staying and obeying her husband was the correct choice. She initially would rather follow her husband’s words than follow her own curiosities. At some point… she changes her mind. She ends up journeying into the woods, and she confronts that which beckons her “to be taken into communion” (313).
Faith has a certain amount of spiritedness and individuality, but she is lost to the conditions of her society and her subservient role to her husband. This gets convoluted because you can read her name as a person or as an extension of Goodman’s beliefs. She isn’t really a character; she is seen more as an object. From a feminist perspective, she is prevented from actualizing herself into a person.
The Journey Brings Goodman Revelations
Goodman in a literal sense leaves behind his faith to go on some unknown errand in the woods. He meets with a man with a black serpent-shaped staff. He also runs into a woman who taught him his catechism. Other townspeople inhabit the woods. Eventually, he hears Faith’s voice, and he isn’t pleased.
When Young Goodman Brown discovers that his wife has involved herself in the journey he cries “‘My Faith is gone! There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given’” (Hawthorne 314).
Because she made the decision to test herself, Young Goodman Brown falls into despair. He grieves that she disobeyed him. He grieves her independence from him. He grieves how his own personal faith has an independence of its own.
Goodman discards his faith in part because of what he perceives as Faith’s disobedience. When doubting Faith, Goodman “flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him” (Hawthorne 314).
If his own personal faith is in the woods, then he can no longer protect it. He can’t compartmentalize his thoughts anymore; he has to recognize that his faith has been compromised. The presence of his wife makes him realize his personal convictions can’t be shielded.
Goodman was a victim of his own town’s conventions. It took this strange journey to get him to really doubt his community. Around midnight, he stumbles into a clearing. Townspeople have gathered for a ceremony. Goodman Brown and Faith are brought forward as new acolytes. They’re the only two people who haven’t been initiated.
Goodman questions the ceremony; he loses trust in his community. He cries to his wife, “’Faith! Faith! Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one” — deep down he still believes she could escape the wrongful notions of Salem.
Goodman calls to heaven and Faith to resist and the scene vanishes. He arrives home the next morning, uncertain whether the previous night was a dream or real.
Faith was unable to experience and test faith like her husband. The story illustrates how with the right intentions one may overprotect a loved one and end up accidentally caging a bird, never letting it fly with its own wings. To put it bluntly, the story illustrates the misogyny of the time.
Faith wasn’t given a chance to test the waters for herself. She was raised to be a follower, not a leader. Her exploration out of the home is seen as breaking gender norms and disobeying her husband’s wishes: she is chastised for her actions (by simply leaving home, she is treated like a child). She wasn’t supposed to go into the forest. She wasn’t supposed to discover things for herself. It bears repeating, the question at the heart of Hawthorne’s story is: What is faith if it can’t be tested?
Pink Ribbons: A Metaphor for Personal Faith
One of the strongest symbols in “Young Goodman Brown” is Faith’s pink ribbons, which appear in the text five times. Pink is used in the text as a symbol of transition and hope.
Several of Faith’s physical descriptions have to do with her pink ribbons staying attached to her head while getting knocked by the wind. Faith’s spirit was moving and wanted to be free, but no matter how much those ribbons shook in the wind, they’d stay in place — just like the notions that were pressed into Faith by society.
Faith tried to define herself. She took off into the woods to seek something. A case can be made that she too wanted to question Salem:
"There was a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept away, leaving the clear and silent sky above Goodman Brown. But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon." (Hawthorne 314)
For one moment, Faith was free. She shed off the traditions, the prejudices, and the misguided beliefs of her society. For a moment, she was in control of herself, and therefore, she was liberated and challenged by the woods.
In several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, the forests that outskirt towns were a place of liberation and an end to constrained roles — this occurs in both The Scarlet Letter and Feathertop; a Moralized Legend.
Faith freed herself by facing herself in the woods and by losing her pink ribbon. At the end of the story, Faith has her pink ribbons back in her hair. She is unable to truly escape what society has turned her into, and so she is the evil she fears. She falls prey to judging and condemning others. She is part of the bandwagon.
Whether Young Goodman Brown had “fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting” or if there really was a meeting, Faith is unable to fulfill her name:
- If it was only a dream, then she adheres to the prejudices of her community. She is filled with hatred. She is one of the “hypocrites who cover hideous crimes with a veneer of piety and respectability” (Hawthorne 318).
- If there was a literal meeting then she was unable to stand for herself because the pink ribbons return to her head. Her protesting was minimal. She accepted the communion of that night and became one with a barbarous society.
The ending of this story says it all: “They carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 318). Young Goodman Brown was alone in his faith; he lost Faith just the same. He no longer loved his wife, if he ever did. He felt convicted by the truths of his town. He stood alone because he refused to be one of the hypocrites he saw all around him. His tombstone was blank, for he did not carry the same prejudices of his fellow Puritans, so they did not know how to define him.
He was cynical, enlightened, and sad because he was isolated. He wasn’t perfect; he didn’t let his wife think for herself. Faith was oppressed; she didn’t really have a way to escape Salem and its nonsense.
The story illustrates the importance each individual person has to think for themselves. When we accept our roles blindly, we may end up accepting prejudices and lies as reality. One of the greatest aspects of feminism is that it moves women to think and venture out of forced submissive roles; it gives women permission to seek liberation.
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Young Goodman Brown." The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature Seventh Edition. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford and St. Martin's, 2006. 309-319.
- Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts. 5th ed. University of South Carolina: Pearson Education, Inc, 2008. 236.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrea Lawrence