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“The Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Symbolism


Nathaniel Hawthorne was an outstanding writer of the 17th century and produced several works that took a reasonable place in the world’s classical literature. Judging from the example of his writing piece such as “Young Goodman Brown” one can state that his creative activity was distinguished with thoughtfulness and depth of analysis of human nature, mainly its dark sides. The literary works of Nathaniel Hawthorne were heavily influenced by the religious roots he had, so doubt and sinfulness fill many of his works, including the one named. These features of Hawthorne’s writing are determined by his origin and religious upbringing as a Puritan. On the example of “Young Goodman Brown” one can see the motives of guilt and self-doubt and intense symbolism that Hawthorne includes in his works as a reflection of his pursuit of truth and self-identity, his religious reconsiderations are also felt in the work and his spiritual struggle comes to the fore in the faces of his characters.

“The Young Goodman Brown” analysis

No doubt the effect of Puritan religion revealed itself in “Young Goodman Brown” – the main character is occupied with the feeling of self-doubt and pursuit of the religious truth. This is the main cause of his journey into the dark, alienated forest. Brown perceives the wrongness of his journey, which is evident from his thoughts about the worries he saw at his wife’s face when they parted: “as she spoke, there was trouble in her face as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night” (Hawthorne 111). The trace of this guilt and initial perception of sinfulness that nevertheless does not stop the main character on the way to the truth are direct parallels from the author’s life philosophy.

Close connection with autobiographical motives

As it has already been mentioned, Hawthorne was educated in a strongly Puritan society – he was born in the city of Salem in the time when his father and grandfather, together with all other members of the Salem community, conducted trials over the witches and burned people in the public fires in their attempt to eliminate evil from the Earth (Soler). However, in the time when Hawthorne lived and matured the cruel essence of those actions became evident, and Hawthorne felt a strong division inside his soul between the faith to which he kept and the reality that proved its wrongfulness. And indeed, the reflection of those doubts in the rightfulness of his ancestors’ actions comes in the answer of the Devil to Goodman Brown on his remark that he did bad that went to the forest and his father had never committed such sinful actions:

“Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans… 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 hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War” (Hawthorne 113)

The description of Puritan society in the story

The Puritan religion in itself never accepted the initial innocence and taught that all people were sinful, having to deprive themselves of happiness and joys of like for the sake of salvation. However, Hawthorne doubted the fact that a man who never sinned would still be sinful, which is expressed in “Young Goodman Brown”. According to the opinion of Meyer (297) is a “psychological journey” that Brown conducts to find out how vicious he is and refuses from this thought. The fact that shocks him is that his sin is coming from his ancestors who, despite being guided by the most religious purposes, still became the devil’s servants in their atrocities. Even Herman Melville who read that work reacted to it in the following way:

“It is, in itself, such a strong positive illustration of that blackness in Hawthorne, which I had assumed from the mere occasional shadows of it, as revealed in several of the other sketches…I should have been at no pains to draw the conclusion, which I came to, at a time, when I was ignorant that the bok contained one such direct and unqualified manifestation of it” (Melville).

Indeed, “Young Goodman Brown” is a story that continues the philosophical path of religious rediscovery for Hawthorne and shows how lost the author is between the teaching of his fathers and the reality that calls the postulates of Puritanism into question. According to the description of Shoemaker, all his inner doubts constituted the strong basis for his literary works and included many elements of his inner world:

“Hawthorne’s skepticism helped to develop a writing technique in which a mixture of fact and imagination lets the reader make his interpretations. In “Young Goodman Brown” both Brown and the reader are given choices as to what is happening”.


Turning to symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown”, one can find a huge number of elements that occupy the mind of the author and find their reflection throughout the plot of the story. The first meaningful element of the symbolism found in the story is seen in the pink ribbons of Brown’s wife, Faith. At first, they are described at the beginning of the story, and much critical thought was attributed to their color – neither red nor white. This fact generated an opinion that Hawthorne wanted to emphasize the mixture of sin and innocence in Faith by the blurry color that did not give preference to any side. This element can be found at the beginning of the story, in the parting of Brown and Faith:

“And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown” (Hawthorne 111).

Further in the story pink ribbons appear again – they mark the loss of faith by Brown as he finds one of the ribbons on the tree marking Faith’s presence in the forest and her deep sinfulness:

“something fluttered lightly down through the air… The young man seized it and beheld a pink ribbon. “My Faith is gone!” cried he… “There is no good on earth, and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.” (Hawthorne 118).

One more symbol of Hawthorne’s doubt in Puritanism and its postulates is seen in the scene of Brown trying to turn Faith back to innocence and religion. Failing to do that and realizing the drama, Brown lacks true emotions, which is stressed by Hawthorne in the symbol of dew besprinkling his check. It is dew, not tears; so Brown is not touched by the event deep in his heart. This scene reveals his true wicked nature despite all callings for the faith that he addressed to his wife:

“He staggered against the rock and felt it chill and damp, while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew” (Hawthorne 123).

There are many more symbols in “Young Goodman Brown” that create the atmosphere of a steep psychological path of the main character. The forest symbolizes the unconscious levels of Brown’s personality in which he tries to find himself and recognizes a lack of faith, goodness, and religiosity. The maple stick that rots from the inside, just like Goodman Brown who turned out not as good as he had supposed, also has a direct symbolic meaning in the story. The fearful dream that Goodman Brown tries to assume being afraid of the dark sides of his personality is also worth critical attention (Gregory).


Summing everything up, it is possible to say that the creative activity of Hawthorne is heavily influenced by his background and the religious education that left the trace of guilt, doubt, and self-examination on his works and his personality, but still helped him create the best works in his literary record. Hawthorne used symbolism very tensely, and one of the major themes was the origination and treatment of sin in Puritan society. With the help of his analytical view, Hawthorne managed to create a multi-dimensional picture of Puritanism and a Puritan, with all his doubts and deprivations, as well as with the challenges and sufferings he accepts in life dictated to him by religious dogmas.

Works Cited

Gregory, Leslie. “Major Images Found in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”. 2010. Web.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales. Oxford University Press, 1999.

McCabe, E. Michael. “The Consequences of Puritan Depravity and Distrust as Historical Context for Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”. 2010.

Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005.

Melville, Herman. “Melville and His Mosses”. The Literary World, 1850.

Shoemaker, Jacqueline. “Hawthorne’s Realm of Morality: Biographical Contexts for “Young Goodman Brown”. 2010.

Soler, Angie. “The Journey Into the Puritan Heart: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”. 2010. Web.


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