Young Goodman Brown Summary

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Young Goodman Brown

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Young Goodman Brown Summary

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The 1835 short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown begins, like many other stories by Hawthorne, with an idyllic scene in a Puritan community—this time in Salem, Massachusetts, the site of the infamous witch trials. “Young Goodman Brown” opens with the title character leaving his home and his beautiful and “angelic” wife of three months named Faith—a pretty woman wearing pink ribbons to go on a journey although it is not specified yet where it is he is heading. His wife urges him to stay overnight and leave in the morning as she is afraid and thinks she will be lonely but Goodman Brown is set upon leaving, even though he wonders if his wife’s bad dreams were alluding to the journey he was about to undertake.

Hawthorne’s character, Young Goodman Brown sets out on his journey and soon finds himself on a dark and dreary road that seems to swallow him up as he progresses along his path. He remarks to himself that there must be a “devilish Indian behind every tree” and looks behind himself, saying, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow,” which is one of the important quotes in terms of foreshadowing in Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This strange figure is obviously the man Goodman Brown was on his way to meet as the figure tells him he is late before the two move forward into the thick of the forest.

The narrator of Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne devotes a paragraph to describing Goodman’s traveling companion. He is of the same class as Goodman Brown, as evidenced by his clothing and the narrator suggests that they bear a resemblance to one another and could easily be mistaken as father and son. Interestingly, the man had “an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and who would not felt abashed at the governor’s table or in King William’s court” if that was where he ended up. Most importantly in terms of both foreshadowing and the argument that this is, in fact, the devil himself, is the fact that this man carries a staff which looked like a black snake and was made so that it almost looked like it twisted and moved itself like an actual serpent.

At this point in the plot of Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne it is not clear where the journey’s destination is going to be but when the strange man offers Goodman Brown his staff in case he gets weary, Goodman protests and says he would prefer to go home and has kept his word and met this man in the forest even though, as he says, “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” but the man does not accept this argument. Interestingly, the strange man says that he was well acquainted with Goodman’s family “as with ever a one among the Puritans” and that he helped his grandfather lash a Quaker woman (presumably a witch) and brought the flame for when his father set fire to an Indiana village in “King Phillip’s war. More importantly, the man says they were friends and they had taken many walks down the same path and returned “merrily after midnight” without incident.

Goodman Brown is incredulous and although he disregards some of what the man says he does make the Devil-man laugh when he says that he is bothered about how he could look his minister in the eye after this discussion. When the man laughs the serpent on the staff “actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy” which irritates Goodman Brown and he goes on to say that he is afraid of breaking his wife, Faith’s, heart and that he doesn’t want her to be harmed, although the reader is still not completely sure how this could be so. Still, as the two spot a woman on the path ahead of them who Goodman recognizes as “a very pious and exemplary dame who taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin” the man claims that Faith will be fine.

As the strange man approaches the female figure and touches her neck with the staff’s serpent tail, this woman named Goody Cloyse, screams “the devil!” but instead of being afraid of the man who says he is her “old friend” she begins talking of losing her broomstick and making potions. She says that she is going to a meeting where there is “a nice young man to be taken into communion.” The devil figure offers her his staff and throws it at her feet where it suddenly seemed to come alive “being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to the Egyptian magi” (lending even more to the idea that this is the devil as he has been around for centuries) and in a moment, both the staff and Goody Cloyse are gone, leaving Goodman Brown to exclaim that “that old woman taught me my catechism” and refuses to go any further. The man leaves him alone for a while.

As he sits meditating on how he is a good Christian for quitting the company of this man who is obviously the devil or a demon he hears the hoofs of a horse coming along the path and hides. As the horses pass bearing none other than the minister and the deacon, two men he trusts and respects highly, and they are talking about the upcoming meeting where people are coming from surrounding communities. He is crushed by what he witnesses and looks up, “doubting whether there really was a heaven above him” and sees a strange cloud and hears voices he recognizes as townspeople. One voice of a young woman “uttering lamentations…entreating for some favor” stands out and suddenly Goodman cries out “Faith!” He hears a scream, laughter, and as the cloud moves a pink ribbon floats down to Goodman Brown. He exclaims, “My Faith is gone!” which is certainly valid on both levels of meanings of the word.

The forest comes alive with horrifying sounds but Goodman tries to be bold and laughs at the howling wind. He flies on through the forest like a madman until he sees a giant fire ahead of him and hears what sounds like a hymn that is being sung in the recognizable voices of the town’s choir. He sees a giant rock that looks like an altar and glimpses the faces of many faces he knows from town—people thought to be good and pious Christians, powerful political figures, and even an Indian priest.

In a state of intense anxiety, Young Goodman Brown searches in vain for Faith as the rock becomes red and a voice calls for the “converts” to come forth. At this call, Goodman Brown steps forward and thinks he sees the specter of his father urging him into this unholy congregation as the ghost of his mother urges him back. The minister and deacon push him onto the altar rock with a veiled woman as they speak of sins in the community. At this point it is revealed that Faith is the woman with Goodman at the altar. He is horrified and Faith looks pale and unsure as they stand before liquid for the baptism that Goodman Brown cannot determine as water or blood. With all of his might he screams to his wife, “Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one!”

At this moment Young Goodman Brown is snapped back to reality and finds himself suddenly no longer in this dreadful scene, but against the rock with the morning dew collecting on him. He makes his way back into town, completely mystified, and encounters the minister and “shrank from the venerable saint as if to avoid an anathema” and questions openly the deacon about which god he prays to. He sees all the people in town and is disgusted but is most disturbed by the sight of his pink ribbon-wearing wife. He simply “looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.”

Here, the narrator of Young Goodman Brown questions in a sentence that is a paragraph to itself, “had Goodman fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?” This is the most important question and the story ends with Goodman Brown unable to listen to talk or open praise during church by the minister or townspeople and avoided his wife completely. As the last lines that form the conclusion of “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne suggest, he lived in fear and disgust of those around him and when he died, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”