The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Young Goodman Brown" (1835)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Young Goodman Brown” was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and first appeared in New England Magazine (Apr. 1835). Hawthorne (1804-1864) was one of the two or three most important American writers of fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Young Goodman Brown” is a dark masterpiece of savage nihilism.
Goodman Brown has an appointment in the forest, so he kisses his new wife Faith goodbye and sets out at sunset from Salem village. His wife is troubled by this journey, whose reason she knows nothing of, and Brown himself is not happy about it, but it has to be done. So he tells himself “after this one night I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to heaven”1 and sets off. Soon enough he meets “the figure of a man, in grave and decent attire,”2 looking around fifty years old and bearing a staff with the “likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.”3 The two walk into the forest. After a while Brown voices reluctance to walk any farther, saying that his father would never have done this, nor his grandfather, and that he comes from a long line of “honest men and good Christians.”4 The other figure says,
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 own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.5
Goodman Brown marvels that he never heard such a thing, especially since “the least rumor of the sort would have them driven from New England. We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness.”6 The other responds
Wickedness or not, I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General court are firm supports of my interest. The governor and I, too¼But these are state secrets.7
And on it goes, with the pair meeting people who Brown thinks highly of, only to have his illusions pierced by his companion. The night culminates in a Black Sabbath populated by many faces Brown thought highly of—including Faith. Brown passes out before he and Faith are given the baptism of evil. When Brown awakens, it is still night, and he is in the middle of the forest, all alone. He returns to Salem a bewildered man, and from that point forward his marriage is poisoned, and he dies sad and embittered, “for his dying hour was gloom."8
“Young Goodman Brown” is one of those classics which most people read in either high school or college or both and never return to as adults. That is a shame, since it is only as adults that readers can properly admire the bleak assault on human society that is “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne leaves open the possibility that Goodman Brown’s experience has only been a dream, that Brown simply suffered through a horrendous nightmare and never recovered from it–an ambiguity much argued about by critics–but the message of the story is clear, and a dark message it is, too, one that does not depend on the existence of the supernatural: that we are all foul hypocrites. The vision of humanity in “Young Goodman Brown” is that the masks we all wear cover up the worst sins we ever suspected of others and ourselves. Hawthorne singles out the Puritans and uses them as the vehicle for this criticism, but the moral equally applies across cultures and time; Hawthorne was as much commenting on the Salem of his own time as on the Salem of his ancestors’.
The critics, of course, see more into it than that:
Many critics have read this story as a psychological allegory in which the world of the village represents that aspect of the personality Freud characterized as the superego, while the forest scene dramatizes the instinctual qualities characteristic of the id. In this reading, Brown's discovery in the forest frequently is translated as sexual knowledge, an interpretation consistent with both the emphasis on his new marriage and the sexual overtones of the sins described in the communion scene. So read, the story becomes a metaphorical descent into the underworld of the subconscious mind--much as a dream might take one into the depths of his or her emotional being--where Brown discovers his own sexual--that is, sinful--nature. As he revealed in "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," Hawthorne was concerned with the repressive aspects of Puritanism, and the effects on the psyche of rigid denial of natural human qualities. In "Young Goodman Brown" he explores the problems incumbent upon Puritan morality in such a way as to generalize about the universal experience of awakening awareness and the necessity of incorporating one's new knowledge into the adult psyche as a natural aspect of growth.9
“Young Goodman Brown” is arguably Hawthorne’s best story. Hawthorne made use of the similar themes in other stories, particularly “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” which features a genial Satan and an unsettling night-time journey, and “Roger Malvin’s Burial” and “The Man of Adamant,” which repeats the Puritan’s view of the American frontier as an evil place which reflects men’s sins (a view echoed and sharpened two years’ later in Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods). But Hawthorne’s handling of these themes is most assured and skillful in “Young Goodman Brown,” and the savagery of his attack is unmediated and undiluted.
Print: David Sandner and Jacob Weisman, eds., The Treasury of the Fantastic: Romanticism to Early Twentieth Century Literature. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2013.
1 Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” in Mosses from an Old Manse (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882), 90.
2 Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 90.
3 Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 91.
4 Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 92.
5 Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 92.
6 Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 92.
7 Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 92-93.
8 Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” 106.
9 William E. Grant, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in Bobby Ellen Kimbell and William E. Grant, eds., American Short-Story Writers Before 1880 (Detroit, MI: Gale, 1988), 154.