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Symbolic Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorn's "Young Goodman Brown"

Updated on September 5, 2018

Symbolic Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Young Goodman Brown

Young Goodman Brown tells the story of a man on a journey to see what the devil has to offer because of his doubts in the Puritan religion and his suspicions of his neighbor’s possible hypocrisy. As Brown journeys into the forest, the stronger his doubts and suspicions become. Brown wants to see what the devil has to offer while still holding on to his puritan faith.

In the beginning of the story Faith, Goodman Brown’s wife, urges him to stay and not go into the forest. She acts like his conscious trying to warn him of the dangers to come. Brown tells Faith to say her prayers and go to bed at dusk so no harm will come to her. He is trying to serve God by being a proper Puritan husband leading his wife while also entertaining his desire to indulge in what the devil has to offer. Against his better judgment he leaves Faith and goes into the forest anyway.

As Goodman Brown starts his journey into the forest he comes across two travelers. The first person Brown meets is a traveler with a staff that looks like a black snake. The traveler is a representation of Satan, in the Bible Satan is often referred to as a serpent. The traveler pulls Brown deeper and deeper into the forest. When Brown starts to realize that questioning his faith is a dangerous thing to do and something his father and grandfather would have never done the traveler counters his doubts by telling Brown that his father was a hypocrite who beat a woman and that his grandfather had murdered Native Americans. The Traveler also tells Brown that he is good friends with many church deacons and that they have also come into the forest before and made a pact with him. These statements further solidify Brown’s doubts in the Puritan faith and give him confidence to continue following the traveler.

The traveler carriers with him a black staff, a colour that is often indicative of evil. The staff is also in the shape of a snake, a common symbol of deception and temptation in the Bible and in this story it also symbolizes the guilty purpose that has brought Brown to the forest. When someone takes hold of the staff they seem to travel faster through the forest, suggestive of yielding to temptation and it's outcome of pulling you deeper in than originally intended.

The second person Brown meets on his journey into the forest is Goody Cloyse. Cloyse symbolizes Brown’s doubts in the honest living of his neighbors. In the woods Goody Cloyse is revealed to be a witch but in his everyday life Goodman knows Cloyse to be the woman who taught him his catechism. Soon after meeting Cloyse, Brown hears the voices of a few travelers on horses; their voices seem to sound like some of the church deacons. These people represent the hypocrisy in the puritan church. By day the deacons and Goody Cloyse teach the scriptures and follow the religious customs of the church but by night they take part in the communion with the devil.

Throughout the story Brown makes remarks about his wife Faith’s pink ribbons. Pink ribbons are something many young girls wear, girls being a symbol of purity and innocence. Faith’s ribbons are represent Brown’s innocence as it slowly fades. Brown realizes he’s past the point of no return when Faith’s pink ribbon is carried by the wind and lights upon a branch near him, he then cries out “My Faith is gone!”, a metaphor that his actual faith in God is gone.

Even though the events Good Brown experienced were actually all a dream, it was so vivid that he can’t get it out of his mind. When he wakes he thinks everyone he knows is hiding a dark secret. He thought going into the forest to make communion with the devil would allow him to see the honest truth of his neighbor’s hidden secrets and still be able to live a good Christian life. He finds out instead that even in a dream his bond with the devil stills holds power over him in his waking life. In the end Brown is completely consumed by his doubts and suspicions of everyone he knows and his life will never return to normal. The symbols seen throughout Goodman Brown’s dream embody all his doubts and suspicions and allow the reader to see a glimpse into the darker side of the early Puritan church. and once revealed, cannot be forgotten.

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