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Sybolism In &Quot;Young Goodman Brown&Quot;

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Autor:  anton  15 May 2011
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Symbolism in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale, “Young Goodman Brown”, is rich in symbolism, indicative of his writing style. Hawthorne was known for his contrast of good versus evil, and the moral responsibility of each individual. Hawthorne lived quietly, in his mother’s home in Salem, after college. He used those twelve years to read, honing his skills as a writer, while taking long walking trips to remote parts of New England. Hawthorne’s first works received little attention, until 1850 when he published The Scarlet Letter. This novel gave Hawthorne great fame, changed his fortune and gave American literature its first symbolic novel. Hawthorne’s rich colonial heritage, gave him insight into the subjects of guilt and sin, the boundaries between good and evil, love and destructive obsession, which he incorporates into many of his works, including “Young Goodman Brown”.

The setting of the story, Salem, Massachusetts, is symbolic due to its strong connection to witchcraft. The character of Goodman Brown is symbolic of the common man. At the beginning of the story, he is a naпve and immature young man who does not understand the seriousness of his actions. His name “Goodman” is symbolic of his status as a good man while his wife’s name, Faith, indicates his faith in the goodness of mankind. As he kisses his young wife good-bye, he is impressed with her innocence. Hawthorne notes the “pink ribbons of her cap” which some writers believe are indicative of her feminine innocence. (Abel 130) Levy states that the color pink is “neither scarlet nor white, but of a hue somewhere between, the psychological state somewhere in between.” (Levy 117) Goodman Brown reassures his wife that all will be well if she says her prayers and goes to bed before dusk. His words declare his wife to be an angel, and he promises to “follow her to heaven.”

Goodman Brown’s journey through the forest is described as a narrow, dark, and dreary path. Hawthorne paints a despondent image of gloom and fear. The forest becomes symbolic of the darkness of sin pulling Goodman Brown deeper into its grasp. Other authors suggest a correlation between the forest and the Garden of Eden. The tree where the traveler sits is indicative of the Tree of Knowledge, while Goodman Brown plays the role of Adam, who is being tempted by Satan. His words are prophetic as Brown states, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!” As his journey progresses through the woods, we are introduced to a traveler, whom Goodman Brown sees sitting at the base of a tree. We are told that Brown and the traveler are similar in appearance; only the traveler is fifty years old and has an “indescribable air of one who knew the world”. Some infer that the traveler is an older version of Goodman himself.

Hawthorne goes into great detail to describe the stranger’s staff that looked like a “great black snake”. He elaborates that the staff was carved in such a way that it appeared to actually moved and twist like a living serpent. This reference to staffs, walking sticks, canes, or rods which appear to become serpents is taken from Exodus Chapter 7:12, the story of Aaron. Aaron, as a messenger of God, throws down his staff, which becomes a living snake. Pharaoh summons his magicians, who perform the same feat, only to have Aaron’s snake swallow the others. Goodman refuses to touch the traveler’s staff, opting to choose a new staff made of maple. Maple is a type of wood, which rots from the inside out. Goodman accepts the maple stick while Goody Cloyse, the older woman, who before was young Brown’s Sunday school teacher, accepts the twisted staff. (Hale 17) This shows that she has already undergone confirmation in evil.

The traveler quickly becomes symbolic of the devil incarnate who has been sent to recruit Goodman Brown into his congregation. As Goodman Brown moves deeper into the forest, he becomes one with his “evil”. (Bunge 13) Brown encounters the minister and Deacon Gookin, who are also traveling to the meeting. Like Goody Cloyse, these men symbolize everyday people who have hidden evil within them. Still Goodman Brown resists, stating “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil.”

When Goodman Brown hears the voice of his beloved wife, he calls out for her to come to his aid. Upon seeing the pink ribbon caught on the branch of a tree, he abandons hope. As Faith’s screams transform into laughter, it symbolizes her acceptance of evil and rejection of goodness. (Able 134) Hawthorne uses laughter to symbolize conflict throughout his stories. The meeting continues, as the new converts gather for a baptism by Satan. The author is building toward the climax in which Goodman Brown calls out to “Faith! Faith! Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.” At this point, he awakes in the forest, alone and disoriented. We, the reader, must infer whether the tale was a dream-sequence or an actual event. In conclusion, Hawthorne describes a bewildered Goodman Brown who staggers into the village and sees his beloved wife running toward him. Instead of embracing her and her innocence, he continues to walk past her without a greeting. He describes the death of Brown and his burial to which they “carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone for his dying hour was gloom.” Regardless of whether the event occurred or was just a dream, it changed his life dramatically. Goodman Brown lost his “faith” in mankind and accepted the fact that evil is present in everyone.

Hawthorne embraces symbolism to contrast images of good and evil, hope and despair, and the moral dilemma of mankind. His use of extreme images, such as the pink ribbons of the innocent Faith to the twisted staff of the traveler, gives readers permanent verbal pictures. Goodman Brown, in conclusion represents fallen man, who wishes to embrace the goodness of others but unfortunately accepts evil as a fact of life.


Abel, Darrel. The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne’s Fiction.

Indiana: Purdue UP, 1988.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Hale, John K. “ The Serpentine Staff in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’

Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 19 (Fall 1993): 17-18.

Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in “Young Goodman Brown.” Modern Critical Views: Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 115-126.

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