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A Matter of Perception

A Literary Interpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown'

By Wilson GeraldoPublished 7 years ago 3 min read

As a student of the occult (hidden knowledge), I have always been fascinated with witchcraft and the magical arts. Interestingly, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown" is set in Salem Village Massachusetts, the site of the infamous witchcraft trials and executions of 1692. There, the main character goodman Brown (goodman refers to his humble birth, it is not his name, for it isn't capitalized in the text) departs from his wife Faith for a night to meet up with a distinguished older figure which can only be described as the devil. Although it is unclear if young goodman Brown knows this or not, Hawthorne gives us a hint in the text. He writes, “With this excellent resolve for the future, goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (620). The phrase "evil purpose" suggests that goodman Brown had some foreknowledge of who he was dealing with. As the two travel through the dark Forrest together, the devil reveals that he’s had dealings with goodman Brown's father and grandfather, who were Puritans, and with many of the prominent people of the town, including politicians. They also encounter historical figure, goody Cloyce, who in actuality is Sarah Cloyce, who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s but was subsequently released. She was also Goodman Brown's catechism teacher—someone who he looked up to. In the end, all of the so-called good people in Salem village that he looked up to were in one way or another, aligned with the devil, including goodman Brown's wife Faith; thus, shattering his faith and leaving him disillusioned in the end. Hawthorne's short story is full of gothic elements, occult references, and historical figures from the Salem witch trials. Through his use of characters and setting, Hawthorne challenges the concepts of good and evil and highlights the protagonist's disillusion and loss of faith.

For the most part, people think in terms of good and evil. Most of us classify our actions as one of the two. However, Hawthorne blurs the lines of good and evil and shows how they are intertwined and interconnected. Much like the yin yang, which is a Chinese symbol used to describe how opposites are actually one, the light and dark aspects of ourselves are also reconciled. Hawthorne hints at this idea when describing the multitudes of people who gathered before the devil for their black communion. He writes,

Among them, quivering to-and-fro, between gloom and splendor, appeared faces that would be seen, next day, at the council-board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land...But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, theses chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints (626).

As we can see, Hawthorne brilliantly and poetically shows us how saints and sinners are one as they congregate together before their dark lord. In other words, Hawthorne is saying that we are all sinners; flawed from birth.

Hawthorn also highlights goody Brown's disillusion and loss of faith. In the beginning of the story, we see that goody Brown is a man of faith and optimistic about his endeavor. We can see that from his language, he tells his wife to pray for him, and believes that if she does, everything will be fine. However, when it is revealed that many of the prominent people in the town are members of the devil's congregation, that is when the change begins. Yet, he tries to resist the devil and hold on to his faith. The text says, "With heaven above, and faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil! Cried goodman Brown" (624). Despite this, when he believes that his wife Faith is dead, he has a change of heart. He says, "My Faith is gone...There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! For to thee is this world given"(625). Hawthorne plays on the word faith, to convey the idea that, not only did goodman Brown lose his wife to the devil, but he also lost his virtue of faith. Another example of this, is when the text says, "He shrank from the bosom of Faith"(628). Not only was he acting indifferent to his wife, but his belief system had changed as well. After finding out about the secret congregation in the dark wilderness, goodman Brown was never the same. He was completely disillusioned from his former reality.

In summation, the ambiguous nature of the story leaves the reader unsure of the mental status of the protagonist goodman Brown, and leaves us wondering if the whole thing was real or not. However, what we do know is that by the end of the story, he’s had a change in his belief system. Consequently, after getting a taste of the dark path, and discovering the hidden wickedness of his peers and himself, his beliefs were shattered, along with his idea of good and evil. In the end, it is a matter of perception.

Baym, Nina, Levine S. Robert, eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.New York, London: W.W Norton & Company: 2013. Print.


About the Creator

Wilson Geraldo

Wilson Geraldo is a graduate from the Community College of Philadelphia. He has his degree in English, and Creative Writing. His work has been published in CCP's Limited Edition magazine.

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