The Idea Of Acting On Sinful Nature In Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown

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The short story entitled “Young Goodman Brown” by author Nathaniel Hawthorne suggests that everyone is corruptible. The Dark Romanticism story develops by Goodman Brown gradually giving into evil through the corruption of his wife, Faith, and his encounter with the devil. All the main characters are deceiving to Goodman Brown, and he sees they are corrupt. There appears to be also many instances in which symbols that portray the struggle of good versus evil, Hawthorne suggests that evil will take control. “Young Goodman Brown” unfolds by showing Goodman Brown, Faith, and the Old Man and the conflicts they go through, which leads to the climax where the themes about deceit and corruption are revealed.

The whole story of “Young Goodman Brown” “hovers on the borderline between the subjective and objective reality derived from Hawthorne's suggestion that Brown’s experience is peculiar to him and yet broadly representative,” (Levy 376). It is all the readers' interpretation of whether the witches’ Sabbath was a real occurrence of a figment of Brown’s imagination. But, since the reader decides it leads to many interpretations, somehow each of those take away common themes: everyone is corruptible, therefore becoming capable of evil and deceit that is unexpected. Although, that may be the theme of the story, there is no controversy it that, it is widely agreed upon. A more controversial and applicable thesis would be: though everyone is capable of evil, not everyone will act on it. This paper applies that controversial thesis to “Young Goodman Brown.”

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The story starts off as a “conventional allegory” about the downfall of man, seen through a “religious lens” (Levy 376). Levy also stated in his analysis that “Faith is simply “Faith,” and Goodman Brown is Everyman,” (377) Levy also discusses how Goodman Brown struck a universal bargain with the Devil that was fortified by the innocence which he convinced himself that he could turn away from his Puritan covenant. Levy has a point, but just because Brown’s “bargain” with Satan is understood by everyone who has any sort of knowledge of western religion, does not mean it’s universal. Many people who are in a community of some sort of western religion know they are sinners and are capable of that, but they “bask in forgiveness from their Lord” (Paulits 578). Since they can acknowledge this capability of evil, you can also assume they can control it. But, in the story of “Young Goodman Brown” you see no one acknowledges any previous sinful behavior they have engaged in. They didn’t know their capabilities and therefore could not have been in control of them. The only man who was the slightest bit aware, was Goodman Brown, but by the time he became aware it was too late. “‘Faith! Faith!’ Cried the husband. ‘Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!’” (Hawthorne 13). He did not become aware of the capability of sin and evil until he became a part of it, and he carried this “dream of evil omen” with him all his life (Hawthorne 13).

But, you can take “Young Goodman Brown” past just religious allegories. Paulits claimed “‘Young Goodman Brown’ is an allegorical presentation of ambivalence. The precise ambivalence in Brown at the beginning of the tale is an attraction for the Devil conjoined with a regret at leaving Faith. Neither has Brown given himself to the Devil nor is he leaving Faith definitively,” (578). Other critics, like Fogle, have also noticed the ambiguous nature of Hawthorne’s story. Fogle even claimed: “[...] these ambiguities of meaning are intentional, an integral part of his purpose. Hawthorne wishes to propose, not flatly that man is primarily evil, but instead the gnawing doubt lest this should indeed be true.” (448)

Whilst this paper disagrees that man is primarily evil, noticing that “Young Goodman Brown” is used as an allegory for more than just religion and how it does have a tinge of ambivalence due to all the conclusions different researchers have drawn, you can open up and see each character had the capability to be evil and each character took the opportunity blindly and with no knowledge of their limits.

But, most notably, prior research investigations have not done enough dissection on how the history of Salem influences the whole story and connects to their thesis. But, the history is important to understand what type of evil the thesis is describing. Hawthorne wrote “Young Goodman Brown” in a seventeenth century Puritan New England in a village named Salem. Salem is most infamously known for the Salem witch trials--the killing of twenty-five innocent people who were accused of being witches--which many critics pointed out. But, Hawthorne didn’t blindly choose Salem as the setting of this story because of the witch trials, his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was the infamous judge of the trials and Salem was Hawthorne's hometown. There were also two more historical events indicated by the old man with the serpent staff: the Puritan intolerance of the Quakers, and King Philip’s War. All the historical background ties into the meaning of the setting.

But, the history takes control of the setting while the characters control the story--their change and conflicts are distinct factors that contribute to the story’s development. Brown resembles both the faith of man and downfall of man in the story. He believed in those around him all his life and didn’t waver from his faith until the night he saw the Sabbath, whether the whole encounter was real or a dream, his feelings suddenly turned awry to everyone around him. The characters all reflect their own fight between good and evil. “‘That old woman taught me my catechism!’ Said the young man; and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment,” (Hawthorne 6). Each character has different relationships with the evil. For Goodman Brown, his indecisiveness was his downfall. Brown had insufficient “true religion--his belief was easy to shake just by being around people who are corrupt” (Levy 377). Brown represents the good and evil sides of human nature. Brown’s wife, Faith, her innocence or portrayal of innocence was emphasized by the pink ribbons, Faith was “both pure and poisonous, saint and sinner,” (Male 77) The symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown” impacted each character in different ways. The serpent staff and pink ribbons characterized the old man and Faith as images of Satan and evil and the idea of innocence. Brown talking about how Goody Cloyse taught him is catechism shows she was weak enough to resort to sin, and all the conflict portrayed by the character revealed the theme.

Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” came with a combination of clarity and ambivalence, the straight storyline which became indistinct at the end when Hawthorne asked “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” (13). Furthermore, the combination of clarity and ambivalence led to many noteworthy characteristics of each character going from good to evil and the importance of the setting and what it implied for the type of sins they committed. The allegorical tale applied the portrayal of characters and developed the conflicts well, leading all readers to a consensus that everyone is capable of evil, leaving the argument to whether or not the act of sinning is something each character willingly acted upon. Hawthorne makes the reader wonder about the true essence of human nature, whilst warning readers not to block out goodness while resisting the darkness of mankind.

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The Idea Of Acting On Sinful Nature In Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from
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