Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” a young man from Salem, Massachusetts leaves his bride Faith and goes into the forest on some sort of mysterious errand. He seems to know the errand is evil, or at least highly dangerous; he also seems to know he will be meeting someone in the forest who will change his life.
The man he meets in the forest is described as “about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features.” Significantly, he also holds a crooked staff. It does not take a genius to recognize this stranger as demonic, if not the Devil himself.
Goodman Brown (“Goodman” was a title in Puritan times, like “mister’) goes a short distance into the forest with the man, and abruptly decides he has gone far enough. He seems to have considered this meeting a sort of initiation into manhood; now he has looked into the face of the Devil and lived to tell about it. So he tells the stranger he’s ready to go home: “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs; and shall I be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path and kept—”
The stranger interrupts. Goodman Brown is scarcely the first: “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 pitchpine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war.”
Look at what Hawthorne is saying! If we accept the idea that this stranger is, in fact, the Devil, then Hawthorne is arguing that persecuting people on the basis of their religious faith or ethnic origins is evil; and that people who do so are acting in the Devil’s service rather than God’s. Considering the number of wars and inquisitions and holocausts that have been mounted in the name of religion and ethnic purity, this was heady stuff for the nineteenth century; to many people, it is still heady stuff today.
But Goodman Brown completely misses the Devil’s point. He still assumes his community has a monopoly on virtue; he does not understand that as long as his own people act uncharitably and unkindly toward those who do not conform to the Puritan ideal of goodness, they serve the Devil every day of their lives. Because he doesn’t “get it”, Goodman Brown cannot see that as long as he insists on only one true interpretation of faith, his faith is false.
At last he arrives in a clearing where some sort of dark ceremony is going on, involving not only the stranger but all the people of Salem as well; and Goodman Brown is horrified to recognize his wife Faith in the midst of it. He cries out to her to “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one—” and in a flash “he found himself amid calm night and solitude.”
Did the events in the forest really happen, or was it just a dream? Hawthorne doesn’t tell us, and it doesn’t really matter. Goodman Brown wanders back to Salem in the morning a changed man. He is never able to look at his neighbors the same way again, and so becomes a sour recluse; he is never able to look at his wife the same way again, and becomes a cold and distant husband.
What does this story mean? Obviously when Goodman Brown went into the forest, he naively believed that his fellow Puritans were actually pure, in thought, word, and deed. The possibility that destroying the villages of heathen Indians, or tormenting practitioners of other faiths, or burning witches, could be evil never occurred to him; that is simply what good Christians did to keep their ranks undefiled. In tying these works to the Devil, however, Hawthorne is explicitly saying that intolerance is evil. Goodman Brown, who returns to Salem determined to be more “pure” than anyone else in town, in fact becomes a failure as a human being.
This story can be found in the collection entitled Selected Tales and Sketches.
It is available in paperback from Amazon here:
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