Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Meaning of Allegory and Imagery in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown


Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne was written in 1835. This short story reflects historical and religious context of the epoch.

Symbolism and imaginary used by the author reflects Puritan ideas of the contemporary society. All the story is an allegory which helps the author to depict contradicting aspects of the Puritan faith.

Accent on human sinful nature is a peculiar characteristic of Puritan religion. Puritans believe that human nature is evil. Adam and Eve had broken the Covenant of Works by eating from the Knowledge Tree. Since that time all people are born in sin and the only way to get to the heaven is recognizing their evil nature and fighting it. Young Goodman Brown becomes the allegorical depiction of this evil part of human nature. All works by Hawthorn are influenced by Puritan society. All his family had strong Puritan beliefs and followed thoroughly religious norms and doctrines. Young Goodman Brown is not only a personal reflection on the meaning and role of religion. Hawthorn also added to the story his findings connected with the history of his own family. This history becomes some kind of background of the short story. In his short story Hawthorn uses Goodman’s brown dream or vision to show the impact of Puritan doctrine on people. The story investigates both ”“ the impact of Puritan religion in the past and present state of events. “Much like the nighttime witches Sabbath that awaits Goodman Brown, the tent revivals of the 1820’s and 1830’s could be seen by the questioning Hawthorne as another attempt by the church to sway its membership towards total obedience and faith” (McCabe).  During the time when the story was written the power of Puritan Church was very strong. It did not only control culture and laws, but also education. It kept control over all spheres of life which had impact on outlook of an individual. In this way Puritan outlook influenced all kinds of human perception. The constant feeling of guilt and sin makes Goodman Brown enter dark forest in order to get the true conversion to become a true member of the Church.  Original sin is the main accent of the Puritanism. John Cotton’s catechism perfectly illustrates this: “Q:   Are you then born a Sinner?

A:   I was conceived in sin, and born in iniquity.

Q:   What is your Birth-sin?

A:   Adams sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling in me.

Q:   What is your corrupt nature?

A:   My corrupt nature is empty of Grace, bent unto sin, and onely unto sin, and that continually (Cotton, 2).

Goodman Brown’s dream becomes an allegory of beliefs and ideas which exist in human subconscious as a result of Puritan upbringing. The ideas of sin and guilt occupy such strong positions in human mind that they become unable to get rid of them even after conversion. The idea of original sin becomes too heavy for people and they can not overcome this feeling of guilt and despair. Such an attitude deprives people of belief in any authority figure and Brown’s night vision illustrates this. His doubts are so strong that after conversion his faith does not become stronger but vice versa, he starts doubting all authority religious figures. “Once the listener fancied that he could distinguish the accents of towns-people of his own, men and women, both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion table, and had seen others rioting at the tavern” (Hawthorne, 17).

This story can be interpreted on several levels. On the one level of meaning night trip of Goodman Brown illustrates lies and hypocrisy of the local religious community. Rigid puritans turn to devil-like creatures who meet for the Black Mess at night. Goodman Brown meets the most faithful Puritans in the dark forest. Now he is finally able to see their true face. The whole story is allegoric and even the names of the characters serve the author to pass his message to the readers. Goodman Brown meets his wife, Faith, at this mess and the readers can see author’s attitude to faith from this episode. The surprise of the protagonist is so strong because all these events take place after the conversion, which was supposed to make him closer to God and help him finally enter religious community. The ideas of perfection and purification, loudly advertized in the Puritan society, are doubted by the protagonist when he sees the best members of the religious community on the Dark Mess.

On the first level of meaning this short story is a sharp criticism of the religious society with its hypocrisy and lies. The main character of the story is shocked by the meeting all good Christian citizens in the Black Mess in the forest. He meets religious leaders and his wife Faith in this mass. This meeting breaks Brown’s illusions about the goodness of society and opens his eyes on the reality. On this level of meaning Black Mess becomes an exaggeration the author uses to show the real state of event concerning the Church and religion. The name of Goodman’s wife, whom he leaves at home, is very symbolic. Her name is Faith and it is the faith that Goodman loses after the accident in the forest. He loses his faith together with his illusions after he discovers the truth about society and people who surround him. “Hawthorne’s knowledge of the historical background of Puritanism combined with the personal experience of his early life and the history of his own family merge into the statement that “Young Goodman Brown” makes.  A system in which individuals can not trust themselves, their neighbors, their instructors or even their ministers can not create an atmosphere where faith exists” (McCabe). This confusion becomes the result of the Puritan upbringing and the author uses allegorical and symbolical narration in order to illustrate this.

Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a deep research of Puritan religion and its impact on people. The author presents his ideas in allegoric form and gives readers an opportunity to discover deep levels of meaning of his story. The story does not only blame too strict Puritan morals and hypocrisy of authority figures, but also presents deep exploration of human nature.

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