Ideas in Young Goodman Brown


In 1835, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote what came to be one of his most famous short stories. It is entitled Young Goodman Brown, and it first appeared in a newspaper before he compiled it together with other stories into a volume. The story is set in the puritanical society of the 15


century. The story revolves around a newly married man who has his faith in humankind shattered after an experience that he is not sure whether it was a dream or reality. In his dream or experience, he stumbles on members of his society whom he has deep respect for, together with his wife, engaging in a black mass. This experience affects the rest of his life, where he became withdrawn and has changed his psychological profile for good. He can no longer bring himself to trusting other people again.

Hawthorne, himself with a puritan background, was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials that took place in 1692. The story has ended up as been one of the most favorite stories with literature students and scholars in America. The story opens with the main character emerging from his house in a village named Salem. On second thoughts, he pauses just outside the house, on the street, to kiss his wife goodbye. The Youngman, Goodman, is embarking on a night journey to the forest to make a rendezvous with the devil. The story follows the experiences that he underwent in the forest and his eventual return to the village a changed man.

Several themes or ideas can be discerned from this narration. But there has been a controversy among the literature critics as to the exact themes that were presented by Hawthorne. This notwithstanding, an analysis of the differing critiques of the scholars will reveal that there are central ideas that the critiques believe exist in the story. One of the ideas or theme is duplicity. Everything and everyone that Hawthorne presents to the reader is wrought with duality; it is not what it appears to be on first glance. Other themes are symbolism, conflict among others. This paper is going to examine the ideas that the writer puts across in this literary masterpiece.

Ideas in Young Goodman Brown

A Brief Summary of the Story

Before embarking on a discourse about the themes that are presented in the story, it might be important to develop a brief background on the same. As earlier indicated, the story begins with Goodman stepping into the street from his house on his way to unexplained but apparently very important journey. It opens with this line: “Young Goodman Brown came out at sunset into the street at Salem village. He puts his head back to kiss his young wife Faith goodbye” (Miglioretto, 2008: 25).

For reasons that are not given explicitly, Faith is not comfortable with Goodman’s journey. She is especially eager to delay him for this particular night. “Dearest heart, prithee put off (your journey) till sunrise. (please) sleep in your bed……… tonight”, she says (Howard, 2008: 18). With a heavy heart, Goodman turns his back on her and embarks on his journey.

The young man makes his way into the woods around Salem. He is apprehensive and imagines that there are devilish Indians lurking behind the ancient trees. He encounters the figure of a man, who is the devil in disguise (Miglioretto, 2008). The man has a peculiar resemblance to Goodman, albeit an older version of Goodman. The man reproaches Goodman for been late.

As Goodman journeys with the old man deep into the woods, he experiences things that threaten to shake the foundation of his faith. He sees his wife, together with other people in Salem who he could never have thought of, engage in a black mass (Flanders, 2009). The congregation tries to initiate him to their faith, but he calls out to heavens and advices his wife Faith to do the same. With this shout, the congregation disperses like a cloud of smoke, and Goodman finds himself alone in the forest (Flanders, 2009).

Ideas in Young Goodman Brown

Goodman is confused about what he has just seen and heard. Was he having a nightmare, or was it for real? As result of this confusion, he opts to keep the experience to himself; he does not discuss it with a soul. The following day, he returns to the village, and sees the “pious” villagers, who only last night were in that black mass, going about their duties (Leland, 2007). He is so pissed off with their hypocrisy that he opts to never trust a soul in his life. He emerges from the forest a changed man. He goes back to his wife, and they live together and get children. But he is a gloomy and introverted soul for the rest of his life (Leland, 2007).

Themes in Young Goodman Brown

1. Duplicity

The first theme, and perhaps the main one, is duplicity. Throughout the story, nothing is what it appears be on the surface (Flanders, 2009). Everything seems to have two dimensions to it. There is what the naked eye sees, and there is what the inside, which is not visible to the naked eye, and which sometimes is the true nature of that thing.

The first duality in the story comes when Goodman walks into the forest. The devil is disguised as a man. The man that Goodman sees is not actually the man in the worldly sense; he is a devil (Howard, 2008). Nathan makes clear his duality idea when the man changes from a resemblance of Goodman to that of his father. The staff that the devil is carrying is also not the everyday staff. It resembles, and according to Goodman, “wriggles and squirms” like a snake (Leland, 2007: 17). The nature of the staff is exhibited when the devil gives it to as woman so that she can walk to the mass quickly.

Ideas in Young Goodman Brown

It seems everything that Nathan writes about, every fixture in his story, has a duality nature. This idea of duality has been put down by critics to the writer’s Puritan background (Howard, 2007). This background makes him see things lurking behind others in nature; nothing is at it looks.

That is the reason why even the names in the story have a dualistic nature. A case in point is Faith. The name, after a close analysis, was not given to this character by the writer randomly. It has meaning. Faith’s name has a duality structure. In the world that she shares with her husband, the name represents the faith that this young woman has on God (Howard, 2007). But this is not the case; she has faith in the devil, and the name here takes a whole new meaning.

As if to prove his duality tendencies, Nathan gives the experience that Goodman had a duality touch (Miglioretto, 2008). No one is really sure of the experience’s true nature. When looked from one perspective, it looks like a dream. This is because Goodman woke up all alone in the forest. Perhaps it was his fantasy, his subconscious playing tricks on him. However, from another perspective, the experience seems to be real. This is given the fact that Goodman experiences it in such details as to make it hard to believe that it is not for real. He could touch and smell things, a sense that is always absent in dreams. He could touch his wife and the other members of the congregation.

The story has another theme of duality in the nature of the characters. The characters in the story are not what they really appear to the ordinary eye of Goodman. Faith, his beloved wife, has two sides to her nature. There is that side that is exposed to Goodman in his physical world. That of a pious, young woman, whom the husband looks forward to riding with into paradise.

But her nature is dual. There is also the evil nature that is hidden from Goodman in the physical world only to be revealed to him in the experience (Howard, 2008). The same is true for every person in the story. Nathan gives the reader the idea that every person has two sides; the good

Ideas in Young Goodman Brown

and the evil (Leland, 2007). The deacon of the church, the pious villagers all have a dark side.

2: Symbolism

This is another idea that Nathan’s story communicates to the reader. The story is full of symbolism. The devil, who is disguised as a man, and a Goodman at that, symbolizes the fact that Goodman’s ancestors are not as pious as Goodman believes (Miglioretto, 2008). In fact, a close scrutiny of the past reveals that his relatives took part in murdering and pillaging innocent souls. This Goodman is told by the devil.

The name Young Goodman Brown is symbolic itself. The first two names give the impression that the character is a “good young man” (Leland, 2007). In fact, this is the truth before he embarks on that fateful journey to the forest. He was a young, happily married man. However, the last name, “Brown”, is an expression and a description of the stained nature of the preceding character (Miglioretto, 2008). Something happened that browned a good Youngman to something bad. This is what happened after the experience. The Youngman changed to a sulking and bad humored man. All the goodness and innocence of the past character was gone.

Critics like Flanders (2009) have in fact viewed the whole story as been more symbolic than realistic. It can be conceptualized as a dream vision. If not a dream, then it is a visualistic day dream. All of the dangers that are represented and displayed in the story are rarely that posed to the physical body. Rather, they symbolize dangers to the soul (Miglioretto, 2008). These are for example the dangers that Goodman encounters in the forest. If they are scrutinized, it will be revealed that they did not affect much the physical nature of the character; rather, they affected his spiritual composition. He lost faith in the religion advocated for by the deacon and his bunch of hypocrites.

Ideas in Young Goodman Brown

3: Conflict

After reading the book, the reader can not fail to notice the overriding theme off conflict throughout the whole narrative. There are different forms of conflict.

First of all, there is the conflict between good and evil (Leland, 2007). As earlier indicated in this paper, every aspect of the story has a duality side to it. One of this duality is the good and the evil. As such, there is always the continuous conflict between the good and the evil in the story as each tries to assert itself and musk the other.

There is also conflict that is been played out within Goodman’s mind. He is not sure whether what he saw in the forest was for real or it was all a dream. He is not sure whether to believe the nature of Salem villagers as they represent it on the outside or to believe what he saw in the experience. This conflict eats at his heart like a cancer, and he lives a very unhappy life, a much “browned” life. He dies with this conflict still playing out inside him.


Ideas in Young Goodman Brown

Nathan Hawthorne’s story Young Goodman Brown is very rich in themes. This is perhaps the reason why it has been referred to by many scholars as a study of literature in the early centuries. But perhaps the most attractive attribute of the story is not only the themes, but the controversy that rides on the actual themes that the writer wanted to put across. There is disagreement among the literature critics as to whether the story is a dream of the young man or it is a depiction of something that did really happen.

Whichever the case, there are many themes that are to be found within the story. Hawthorne tries to put across the idea of duality, where everything in nature has two sides to it. There is the evil and the good attribute of everything. There is also the idea of symbolism. Nathan uses everything, including the names of the characters, as symbols of something deeper. These are just some of the themes in the story.


Flanders, D. B. (2009). Young Goodman Brown: A Book Review. Long Beach: Cengen Books, 10-13.

Howard, S. L. (2008). Literature from the 18th and 19th centuries. Washington: Babbie Books, 18-23.

Leland, G. C. (2007). A collection of short stories from the 19th century. New  York:

McGraw-Hill, 17-21.

Miglioretto, D. B. (2008). Hawthorne Nathan: A review of his Works. Brooklyn: Wiley & Sons, 25-30.

Ideas in Young Goodman Brown