Symbolism in Young Goodman Brown

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for writing rather philosophical pieces about Puritan America with a large amount of symbolism and many hidden meanings. Hawthorne’s most famous work, The Scarlet Letter (1850), for instance, offers an alternative view on sin and the way it was perceived during the puritan era. Yet, Hawthorne’s smaller narrative pieces also contain concentrated symbolism, which can be found in even the smallest detail. As such, Young Goodman Brown is almost entirely constructed from small symbols of contrast that span on many levels throughout the narrative. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown serves as a symbolic and even somewhat satirical story condemning Puritan America in its witch hunt as well as contrasting faith and reason, good and evil, and belief and doubt.

Symbolism in Small Details

The critique of the New England era of the United States and its often overly hard and overwhelming Puritan faith is not extraordinary for Hawthorne’s work, however, in Young Goodman Brown, it appears to be the least violent, yet most evident. The short story opens with the titular Goodman Brown leaving his wife of three months Faith for a mysterious “journey,” the purpose of which is not disclosed by the end of the story, despite her pleas for Brown to stay. The young man is convinced he must take his journey “forth and back again, […] ‘twixt now and sunrise” (Hawthorne 74). The trip Goodman Brown undertakes turns out to be quite dreadful for him resulting in him losing connection with faith both literally and figuratively.

The contrast between faith and reason as well as the simultaneous connection between them is, perhaps, the most evident symbolism found in the story. As Goodman Brown undertakes his journey, he finds that all of his townspeople take part in what appears like a witch sabbath by the end of the story. This shocks the young man so deeply that he returns bitter and cold, even refusing to greet his wife upon coming back (90). As a faithful Puritan, Goodman Brown sees no reason in what he witnessed at the end of his journey, thus, becoming blinded by that sight and acquiring strong doubt in his faith and all surrounding people. Brown’s journey was supposed to be his self-exploration, however, by not being able to reflect on himself and relying purely on his faith, the man largely fails to complete such a task.

Good and evil is contrasted in Young Goodman Brown as well, however, in a somewhat twisted fashion that can be observed only by reading the story completely and upon noticing small details. As such, in one of the episodes, as Goodman Brown walks through the forest with an older man, he becomes tired and plucks a branch off a maple tree to make a walking cane for himself. As he clears the branch from twigs, he feels the branch being “wet with evening dew.” A moment later, however, the twigs and the branch become “strangely withered and dried up” (76). This symbolizes Brown’s doubt that progresses as he walks with the old man. It is evident that Goodman Brown does not have a complete understanding as to the purpose of his journey with his faith drying up steadily throughout the narrative.

As the doubt takes over Brown’s mind at the climax of the story, the scene of the witch sabbath, he essentially loses his faith completely. By seeing people from his town Salem Village, including his wife with a symbolic name Faith, being present at a vile venue, Brown instantly distrusts them completely (88-89). This demonstrates how weak Goodman Brown’s faith is. He never doubts he might be experiencing hallucinations or even be tricked by the devil himself. The man instantly dives into a distrust that is later manifested in the final portion of the narrative. This distrust also apparently satirizes the Puritan society of the United States that attempted to look good and holy, however, was filled with distrust and vile intentions.

Conclusion

In Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates his sophisticated skill in writing not only a symbolic narrative, but also a satirical one. By criticizing the Puritan society in such a bold and witty manner, Hawthorne attempts to bring about a message that faith must be driven by reason. At the same time, even a shadow of doubt can shatter faith entirely. This, in turn, acquires a greater meaning, showing the author’s dissatisfaction with the Puritan past of his country that was full of distrust and hypocrisy.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Mosses From an Old Manse and Other Stories. The Floating Press, 2011, pp. 74-91.

June 06, 2022
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