The Revelation of Sin: What Nathaniel Hawthorne Was Trying to Say in “Young Goodman Brown”

Although “Young Goodman Brown” is recognized by most critics as one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best works of fiction, what exactly Hawthorne was implying through the story is not so easily verified (McKeithan 93). In the narrative, Young Goodman Brown, representing the average man who is struggling in the fight of good versus evil, journeys into the forest at night (the forest generally representing evil), and discovers a truth that all must eventually face—there is sin everywhere in the world and no one is perfect. Put more harshly, everyone is naturally evil, and because of this truth, Brown’s “dying hour was gloom” (Hawthorne 273). This is where “Young Goodman Brown” takes on a more controversial edge. Some critics, such as David Levin in Shadows of Doubt, argue that Brown is an innocent victim “misled by the Devil who conjures up apparitions to befuddle” him (Hurley 410), while many others will agree with critic D. M. McKeithan, who says that Brown was “deliberately and knowingly indulging in sin” (95). This gives rise to the question—was Hawthorne implying that all mankind is naturally evil? Or was he trying to say that we are all helpless victims of the evil in the world?

Though Levin argues that Brown is a guiltless man beguiled by the Devil’s wiles, there are several pieces of evidence in the story that suggests otherwise, such as Brown’s thought, actions, and even his appearance (Hurley 93). For example, when Young Goodman Brown decides to leave his wife, Faith, for a late night journey into the forest, he “felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (Hawthorne 265, emphasis added). Also, Brown’s journey into the forest can be interpreted as “a symbol of Brown’s retreat into himself” (Hurley 413), in which he converses with Satan and is eventually convinced that he cannot escape nor resist evil (Hawthorne 270). Hawthorne even goes to the extreme of emphasizing a similarity between the protagonist’s and antagonist’s appearances; he describes the Devil-like archetype as “bearing a considerable resemblance to [Goodman Brown],” and even goes on to say that “they might have been taken for father and son” (Hawthorne 266-67).

The protagonist makes several excuses to turn back as the stranger leads him deeper into the forest (Hawthorne 266-69), but he is not strong enough in his Faith to resist the devil’s persuasive arguments that the journey will be harmless; for example, the devil claims to be “well acquainted with [Goodman’s] family as with ever a one among the Puritans…” (Hawthorne 266); these vague mentions symbolize the subconscious attempt mankind makes to justify wrongdoing.

Finally, when Young Goodman Brown witnesses the witch meeting, the secret sins of his fellow Puritans are revealed to him. If one translates the protagonist’s journey into the forest as his indulgence in sin, the allegory goes hand in hand with the biblical telling of man’s very first sin; when Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened to the evil in the world—they were conscious of their nakedness and they were conscious of their sin. Similarly, Young Goodman Brown’s indulgence in evil opens his eyes to the sinfulness of everyone around him. This causes him to lose his faith not only in his fellow men, but also in God. Instead of accepting his natural depravity and looking toward Heaven to be cleansed, he takes the evil nature of the world for confirmation that “there is no good on earth” and surrenders to the devil, living the rest of his life as “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” (Hawthorne 273).

In conclusion, Hawthorne did believe that there is evil in every human heart—he makes this argument frequently in “Young Goodman Brown”—but this does not imply that every human is mainly evil or decisively tries to convert their “evil impulses into evil deeds” (McKeithan 94). It does, however, suggest that man has a sinful nature that can only be quenched by God’s grace, and thus Hawthorne teaches a valuable lesson through Young Goodman Brown—man should not put faith in human beings, because we are all imperfect and have a tendency to fail; but also, man should never lose faith in God, because only through Him can we obtain freedom from our sin.

Works Cited

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Introduction to World Literature. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: Norton, 2005.
  • Hurley, Paul J. “Young Goodman brown’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.” American Literature 37.4 (1966): 410-19. JSTOR. Web. 5 June 2010.
  • McKeithan, D.M. “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: An Interpretation.” Modern Language Notes 67.2 (1952): 93-96.JSTOR. Web. 5 June 2010.
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