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Young Goodman Brown: Summary, Analysis & Symbolism

Young Goodman Brown: Summary, Analysis & Symbolism
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  • 0:01 Overview of Young…
  • 1:02 Plot Summary
  • 3:53 Story Analysis:…
  • 5:14 Story Analysis: Loss…
  • 6:08 Symbolism in the Story
  • 8:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown' is a short story that's rich in meaning. In this lesson, we'll go over the plot points, themes, characters, and symbols.

Overview of 'Young Goodman Brown'

Have you ever woken from a nightmare, only to find the heart-pounding terror stayed with you long after the dream was over? Or perhaps you've lived through a disappointment, after which the world - and you - felt far less naïve. Imagine the disillusionment of a child who discovers that the Tooth Fairy is really a parent, and now suspects that mom and dad may be hiding even more information. Often as we age, we begin to question the religious beliefs and political worldviews of our families and societies.

Most of us live through these kinds of experiences regularly, and even if they're painful, we figure out how to move on. Not so for Young Goodman Brown, the title character in an 1835 short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Young Goodman Brown begins with a rosy outlook, with unshakeable faith in himself, his relationship, and his society. But all that changes on one fateful night.

Plot Summary

Young Goodman Brown is setting out from his home in Salem village, saying goodbye to his pretty wife, Faith, who's wearing her new pink ribbons. He has a little task to attend to that night, but Faith doesn't want him to go. She's afraid of the dark and of what might happen to her all alone. Goodman Brown tells her to say her prayers and go to sleep.

As he sets off into the forest, Goodman Brown meets an Old Man, who has an uncanny resemblance to Brown. As it turns out, the Old Man was good friends with Goodman Brown's father and grandfather. The Old Man intimates that he is the devil and offers to lend Goodman Brown his walking stick, which is carved in the shape of a snake. Goodman Brown insists that he and his forefathers have always been good Christian men.

As they go further into the forest, they come across Goody Cloyse, an old woman known in the village for her piety and good deeds. Goodman Brown hides so she won't see him, so he can avoid discussing why he is walking through the forest at night with the Old Man. However, she meets up with the Old Man in the forest, where she confirms that the Old Man is indeed the Devil and reveals herself as a witch. She's on the way to an evil ceremony, where two new converts will be welcomed into a dark cult.

More and more people from the village, including the preacher and the governor's wife, filter through the woods. Goodman Brown is shocked that so many seemingly upright citizens secretly practice devil worship. Grappling with this information, Goodman Brown looks up to see a pink ribbon float down from a branch. Crying, 'My Faith is gone!', he realizes that even his beloved wife has gone to the dark side.

In a clearing, a large crowd has gathered around a bonfire. They chant twisted versions of hymns and make ready to welcome the two new converts. A veiled woman is led to the fire, where she stands next to Goodman Brown. It's Faith. The two stare into each other's eyes as a dark figure says they have been initiated into the truth of evil: from now on, they will see the darkness lurking underneath everything. Desperate, Goodman Brown screams to Faith to look to Heaven and resist temptation.

Suddenly, Goodman Brown finds himself alone in the forest. It's morning. Had the whole thing been a wretched dream? He staggers back to the village, where he's disgusted by the sight of the preacher preparing his sermon and Goody Cloyse teaching a little girl her prayers. Arriving home, he refuses to speak to Faith, who is again wearing her pink ribbons. He lives out the rest of his life in suspicion and despair and dies a lonely, bitter old man.

Story Analysis: Critique of Puritan Society

Like so many of Hawthorne's short stories and novels, 'Young Goodman Brown' takes place in Puritan New England, specifically in Salem, Massachusetts. You're probably already aware of Salem's grisly history as home of the infamous Witch Trials, during which dozens of women and men were accused of witchcraft, and many were executed. One of Hawthorne's ancestors was actually involved in the trials and sentenced several women to death. Some scholars have suggested that this family legacy may have been what sparked Hawthorne's interest in writing about - and criticizing - Puritan society.

At the beginning of the story, the Old Man reveals that he was present during two major events from Goodman Brown's family history: when Goodman Brown's grandfather whipped a Quaker woman in the streets of Salem, and when Goodman Brown's father burned an Indian village during King Philip's War.

Hawthorne drew these details from the actual history of Salem village. Founded by Puritans seeking religious tolerance, Salem quickly became a repressive society where those who did not follow sanctioned behavior were violently punished. The Quakers, the American Indians, and those convicted of witchcraft were among those brutally treated by the Puritans, and Hawthorne's story suggests that underneath Salem village's pious exterior, hypocrisy and intolerance prevail.

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