Editors' Note: We're excited to welcome back Wheaton College professor Leland Ryken as our literature scholar in residence to guide us in reading together the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne short story “Young Goodman Brown.” Last week week he introduced the work and described the literary conventions and context. This week he prompts discussion of the style and substance of this enduring classic.
Previously in Commending the Classics:
- Piper, Ryken, Reynolds, and Nielson Commend the Classics
- 10 Essential Classics of Western Literature
- Why Christians Should Read Camus
- Read Hawthorne's Classic Story 'Young Goodman Brown'
For all its excitement as a fantasy adventure story, “Young Goodman Brown” also embodies issues central to our life in the world and in the church. For purposes of analysis, the following discussion guide arranges the interpretation of the story into five questions.
- Why must Young Goodman Brown make his journey into the forest?
- What does the forest represent in this story?
- What discovery does Young Goodman Brown make in the forest?
- Exactly what “faith” does Young Goodman Brown lose in the forest?
- Where does Young Goodman Brown go wrong?
Reach your own conclusions after reading the story or feel free to follow along as I answer.
Why must Young Goodman Brown make his journey into the forest?
In the opening paragraphs of the story, we do not yet know the nature of the impending mysterious journey into the forest, but Hawthorne skillfully generates a great sense of urgency. When Faith attempts to dissuade her husband, suggesting that he instead go into the forest by daylight, he replies, “My journey, as thou callest it [hinting at the allegorical level of meaning] . . . must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise.” Why “must” the journey occur? Because it is part of growing up and becoming an adult. This is a coming-of-age initiation story. No one can avoid discovering what Young Goodman Brown discovers about human nature
What does the forest represent in this story?
Hawthorne does a masterful job of answering that question himself. He keeps adding details that finally produce one of the most vivid visions of evil in all of literature. Hawthorne leaves us in no doubt that the forest represents the principle and practice of evil. The presiding minister is Satan. The vocabulary of wicked and evil and dark and sin permeates the pages.
What discovery does Young Goodman Brown make in the forest?
The protagonist makes two discoveries in the forest, and both focus on hidden evil. First, Young Goodman Brown discovers that everyone in his acquaintance has a dual nature. In the village and by daylight, most of the people in the forest appear virtuous and pious. Some of them are religious and civic leaders. The protagonist discovers in the darkness of the nighttime forest that these same people have an evil side. To heighten this fact of human nature, Hawthorne pictures the people in the forest as being actively committed to evil—-even enthusiasts for it. Of course we are shocked as we view that spectacle. The presiding “minister” at the service says, “Welcome . . . to the communion of your race. . . . This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds. . . . Now ye are undeceived . . . [and] conscious of the secret guilt of others.”
But the evil is internal and personal as well as public. Young Goodman Brown discovers that he himself is evil. At one point we are told that Young Goodman Brown “was himself the chief horror of the scene.” At the climactic moment in the service, the protagonist steps forward to join the congregation, “with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart.” No one can avoid making this self-discovery. It comes with the territory of being human. This is one thing that makes the story so convicting, and it is to Hawthorne's credit that he does not allow us self-righteously to make charges of hypocrisy about others and exempt ourselves.
Exactly what “faith” does Young Goodman Brown lose in the forest?
This is where the interpretation of the story becomes controversial and legitimately multiple. At a key moment, Young Goodman Brown cries, “My Faith is gone! . . . There is no good on earth.” Primarily and indisputably, Young Goodman Brown loses his faith in the goodness of people. Satan tells the worshipers that “all whom ye have reverenced from youth” and “deemed holier than yourselves” are actually members “in my worshiping assembly.”
A second meaning may exist as well. Perhaps Young Goodman Brown has given up his own Christian faith. After all, when he dies and is carried in “a goodly procession” to the cemetery, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”
Where does Young Goodman Brown go wrong?
At a theological level, the story asserts the doctrine of original sin. Given the universal sinful condition of the human race, how do we manage the situation? What we know of Hawthorne's views on human nature does not allow us to interpret the story (as it is often interpreted in the secular classroom) as saying that belief in sin is an illusion needlessly foisted on the human race by Christianity and preeminently by Puritans and Calvinists.
I remember sitting in a classroom at the University of Oregon and hearing the professor offer the interpretation that the spectacle of a disillusioned Young Goodman Brown is a picture of what happens when a person accepts the premises of Christianity and Puritanism. The implied corollary was, Surely you don't want to be embittered and disillusioned like the protagonist, so you should reject Christian notions of sin. I momentarily felt that I was present at an academic version of the forest meeting, seeing new ways in which the secular mind perverts truth.
The story accepts sin as a “given” of life in this world and then asks us to consider what we plan to do with that knowledge. Young Goodman Brown mistakes half of the truth about human nature as the total truth. This mistake is a lie that Satan asserts in the forest. He tells his congregants, “Evil must be your only happiness.” Young Goodman Brown is easy prey to this instruction. When he cries out that his Faith is gone, he adds, “Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.” When Young Goodman Brown appears on the street the next morning, he is a “distrustful, if not a desperate, man,” and when he attends a church service, all he can hear is “an anthem of sin.”
As readers, we are invited not to make the same mistake. The characters who attend the service of evil in the nighttime forest also exist in the daily light of the village. Old Deacon Gookin can be seen “at domestic worship.” Goody Cloyse can be observed “catechizing a little girl.” On Sabbath day, “the congregation was singing a holy psalm.” If the people of Salem village are partly evil, they are also partly redeemed.
Further Reflection or Discussion
The story does a masterful job of posing a difficult dilemma, namely, how to live with our knowledge of the dual nature of people around us, as well as our own. In the figure of the protagonist, the story puts before us a negative example to avoid. But this merely clears a space for the difficult task of applying the main premise of the story: the hidden evil and therefore hypocrisy that characterizes every person. Here are some questions to prompt reflection or discussion:
- What do you find most convicting about this story?
- How is the story true to your experience and observations?
- Metaphorically speaking, when have you attended the communion service in the forest? How did you respond?
- Faced with a knowledge that all the Christians you know have a hidden evil side to their thoughts and behavior, what is the right response?
- One application of the story concerns religious and civic leaders whose hidden sin becomes public. How do you manage your shock on those occasions? How do you counsel the Young Goodman Browns of your life when the sin of a respected Christian leader is publicly exposed?
- Keeping in mind that “Young Goodman Brown” is a literary text, and that this online discussion site is literary in nature, how do you think a fictional and allegorical story uniquely embodies the issues raised in the foregoing discussion? What does Hawthorne's masterpiece communicate that an essay on the subject of hypocrisy does not? How does this story overcome the cliché effect of the truism that everyone has a secret side?