Innocence can be defined as a lack of guile or corruption; purity. The loss of innocence can occur when exposed to the destructive parts of the world. When examining the short story Young Goodman Brown, there proves to be a narrative of the loss of innocence. (Garcia) Young Goodman Brown was published in 1835 by American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story takes place in 17th-century Puritan New England, a common setting for his works. The descendent of infamously harsh Puritans, and the only child of a sea captain who died when he was four, Hawthorne grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. (wikipedia) He was a descendent of a Puritan judge who ordered the execution of the Salem Witch Trials. (Hagen) Hawthorne frequently focuses on the tensions within Puritan culture, yet steeps his stories in the Puritan sense of sin. (Wikipedia) In his short story Young Goodman Brown, the use of setting and symbolism contribute to the portrayal of the theme of loss of innocence.
In the short story Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorne’s use of setting contributes to the portrayal of the theme of loss of innocence. This is evident as Hawthorne made a clear distinction between the town and the forest: the town was described with a beautiful sunset, whereas the forest was described in a dark and evil manner. This distinction allows the reader to see the final moments of Young Goodman Brown’s innocence, and how this innocence is essentially taken away when he enters the forest. A change of language in the story can also be seen as Goodman Brown entered the forest, which further emphasizes its dark nature. “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.” (Hawthorne) As he left the village, which represented his youth and innocence, and entered the forest, which represents his adulthood, his innocent state was essentially shattered. The further Brown wandered into the forest, the more corrupt he became as the forest became darker and closed him in from all sides. To further exemplify how the setting assists with the portrayal of the theme of loss of innocence, the story takes place in Salem. This setting is ideal because of its historical context, as it is where the Salem Witch Trials, the Puritan intolerance of the Quakers, and King Philip’s War took place. By including these references, Hawthorne reminds the reader of the dubious history of Salem Village and the legacy of the Puritans. (SparkNotes) ‘Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War.” (Hawthorne) Brown believed that his father and grandfather would never step into the forest due to honor. Once the devil told him that this was not the case, the reader is able to see how Brown is affected by this information, and how he is further corrupted. Therefore, the reader is able to see why Salem was an ideal place for the story to take place due to its dark history, and how the protagonist is further corrupted as he wandered into the forest.
Along with setting, Hawthrone’s use of symbolism contributes to the portrayal of the theme of loss of innocence. This is evident as the character’s names are used to symbolize innocence: The name Young Goodman Brown is symbolic of innocence, as “young” is referring to his youth, and “goodman” is referring to his good nature. He is also newly-wed, which adds to his youthful character. As Brown is used to portray someone of good nature, he also shows corruptibility. This can be seen as he initially believed that everyone around him was good, however, by the end of the story, not only is he corrupt, but he also believes that everyone around him is corrupt as well. “By the sympathy of your human hearts, for sin ye shall scent out all the places – whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest – where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot.” (Hawthorne) Towards the end of the story, the devil promises Young Goodman Brown a future filled with sinning – a completely different view of life from what he had been living. Initially, Goodman Brown thought of his family as pure and good. However, when he returned to the village, he trusted no one, and like the devil’s speech suggested, Goodman Brown saw the evil in everyone. (SparkNotes) Similarly, like Young Goodman Brown, his wife, Faith is used to symbolize purity, as well as her husband’s faith. (Hagen) Initially, Faith is meant to represent someone good and pure, as her “pretty head” and “pink ribbons” helps to emphasize the youth and innocence of her character. She remained a symbol of her husband’s religious faith throughout the story. This is seen when Goodman Brown first met up with the devil and explained being late because “Faith kept me back a while,” which literally referred to his wife Faith begging him not to leave, and figuratively to his religious faith, which could have stopped him from meeting up with the devil, but didn’t. (Hagen) This can be seen again when Young Goodman Brown realized that Faith had converted to satanism, and he is corrupted: “ ‘My Faith is gone!’ cried he, after one stupefied moment. ‘There is no good on earth, and sin is but a name.’ ” (Hawthorne) Losing his wife, meant the literal loss of his spiritual faith. Hawthorne symbolizing the character’s name shows the reader how even the innocent can become corrupt.
The short story Young Goodman Brown, written by Nathanial Hawthorne, portrays the theme of loss of innocence through the use of setting and symbolism. Using the setting of Salem, and more specifically the forest, the reader is able to see how the protagonist became corrupt and lost his innocence the further he wandered into the forest. Furthermore, by using the characters name as symbols, the reader is able to see how anybody can become corrupt and lose their innocence. There is an inherent warning in Hawthorne’s story against the notions of unrealistic expectations against the backdrop imperfect human beings.