The setting of the story is in Salem, at dusk. A newly married young man, Goodman Brown goes for an unknown chore into the forest despite his wife pleading with him to stay. He insists that the journey he must take into this forest must be done that very same night. What happens in the forest is bizarre. He comes into contact with a man dressed as himself and with a resemblance to him. It was like a reflection of himself (Hawthorne, 1835).
The man Goodman encounters in the forest carries a black staff shaped in the image of a serpent. Together, Goodman and the man encounter the renowned Mistress Cloyse in the woods. She complains about the need to take a walk and the stranger offers her the staff, which she accepts and uses it to fly away to her unknown destination.Later, other people from the town inhabit these woods in the same night and travelled in the same direction as that which Goodman had taken. Goodman hears the sound of his wife as whispers in the trees and tries to call her out in vain. Unconsciously, he flies through this forest using maple staff given to him by the stranger he had encountered. At around midnight, Goodman arrives at a clearing and finds the people of the town assembled there.
At this ceremony, the newest converts to witch craft are brought forward, Goodman Brown and his wife Faith. He realizes that himself and his wife are the only two people in the whole town who hadn’t been initiated into this rite. After Goodman calls to the heavens, this scene automatically disappears. When he comes back home to Salem the next morning Goodman Brown is not sure whether the happenings of the previous night were just a dream or real. His belief in Christianity is deeply shaken by this happening. He also loses faith in the people and even in his own wife Faith. The rest of the life of Goodman Brown is lived in bitterness and suspicion of all the people around him. When he passes on, no one laments because they think that his hour of death had long been outlived.
The symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown”
Symbolism is a tool that is widely applied by many literary writers to depict a particular scenario or situation in a more vivid and distinct manner.
Hawthorne (1835) employs the use of symbolism as a literary tool to offer a vivid description of a certain event or situation in his story “Young Goodman Brown.” There two symbols used here (Mellow, 1980). One is the serpent shaped staff that represents evil and the other is the pink ribbons worn by Faith, Goodman’s wife which represents purity and innocence.
Just as the staff of the devil is used as a symbol of defiance to God, Hawthorne uses the serpent on the stranger’s staff to depict evil (Miller, 1991; Bloom, 2005). The stranger offers Goodman the staff as a way of welcoming him to the evil world. Goodman tries to resist this offer at first “…We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness…" (Hawthorne, 1835).
After he observes the lady Cloyse, the madam who had taught him catechism take up the staff from the serpent man and fly away, and hearing the voice of his wife Faith, he succumbs to this offer “…Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven… maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run…” (Hawthorne, 1835).
When he succumbs to this temptation and curiosity of taking the staff and flying away with it into the forest, he is condemned. This symbolizes his loss of innocence and purity.
Another symbol used by Hawthorne (1835) in this story are the pink ribbons worn by Goodman’s wife Faith. These ribbons have been used frequently in this story to represent purity and innocence. At the onset of the story, Hawthorne mentions these ribbons a number of times in the conversations held by Faith and her husband Goodman. These ribbons are a representation of the youthfulness, naivety and ambiance of the young marriage between the two “…Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap while she called to Goodman Brown…” (Hawthorne, 1835).
The ribbons are not mentioned when Faith is taken to the clearing to be introduced to the witchcraft. This suggests that loss of purity and holiness has occurred to her. According to Goodman, Faith was no longer the woman he knew. Before, he though that she was the only pure, innocent and void of evil human being he knew but after this, he realizes that she has also fallen into the realms of the devil together with the other people of the community.
However, at the end of this story, after the reunification with his wife, Goodman realizes that she is wearing the pink ribbons and he starts having doubts about whether his experience that night had been real or imagined “…Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth…Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” (Hawthorne, 1835).
Whether the happenings of this night had been a dream or were real, they certainly shaped the way Goodman viewed other people in his society as well as his own wife from that night hence. From what he experienced and saw that night, he lost faith in other people. When he comes to the village from the forest the next morning and finds madam Goody Cloyse playing with a child, he snatches the child away from her with such speed as if frenzied. When his wife crosses the street in ecstasy to meet him, he ignores her and walks away.
Goodman dies a very melancholic man. And his life having been lived in fear, suspicion and mistrust. These vices push him away from the world and the people he knows. Everywhere he looks, he just sees sin in the men and women around him. After he dies, there is no hopeful wording on his grave because the village members thought he had been a lost cause.