One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most anthologized tales, “Young Goodman Brown” shares themes and techniques with much of his other work. Hawthorne’s probing of what might be called the psychology of sin (however secular are modern readings), expressed through his characteristic manipulations of symbolism, merge the tale with his other short stories, such as “The Birth-Mark” (1843) and “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance” (1850), as well as his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852. (Hawthorne’s short stories were written mostly before 1850, and his novels were written after that date.) Hawthorne’s ideas, moral vision, and artistry have established him as one of the nation’s greatest writers. The suggestive ambiguities in his fiction have made his work particularly amenable to treatment by the full range of modern critical perspectives.
The symbolic significance of places, times, names, and objects seems obvious in “Young Goodman Brown.” Salem is the dwelling place of family and community, religion and faith (“faith” the belief and “Faith” the woman). The name Goodman suggests “good man” (although it also had been an equivalent of “mister”). The surrounding wilderness is unknown, a place where one can easily wander from the straight and narrow path. In addition, the scenes in Salem occur during daylight, the scenes in the forest at night. In that dark forest, Brown discovers a prince of darkness (an apparent devil who looks like a man) who appears with his serpent cane as if he has been conjured into being by the word “devil.” Has Brown found in that darkness the light or the truth or an acceptable moral standard in that heathen wilderness? Does he remain a naive yet good man?
“Young Goodman Brown” is not, in fact, a simple religious parable about the undeniable evils of life. The statement that “evil is the nature of mankind,” after all, is spoken by the Devil (the prince of lies as well as the prince of darkness) in what may have been only Brown’s dream. “Young Goodman Brown” is a psychological tale about the impact of this partial truth upon a particularly susceptible mind. If this were not the case, Hawthorne need not have written the final page of the story nor have portrayed Brown in such a negative fashion. Should not the discoverer of truth be rewarded with a positive outcome? Hawthorne does not focus on universal evil or human hypocrisy. Rather, he criticizes Brown as an either/or thinker who never acknowledges the evil in himself. His own diabolical curiosity initially leads him to his appointment in the forest. The devil looks like Brown. After Brown exclaims “my Faith is gone!” he himself becomes “the chief horror of the scene.”
Initially, Brown seems aware that his mission is sinful, but eventually he perceives sin only in others. He becomes blind to goodness and avoids human contact. Like so many Hawthorne characters, he becomes a cold observer of life rather than a life-affirming participant. His sin is pride. As the story opens, he is innocent, young, and sheltered. He knows only good. When he sees Faith in the forest, however, he abruptly converts to a belief that only evil exists. Either attitude is simpleminded. He never envisions a complex life that is a mix of good and evil and which in any case must be lived.
What troubles Brown most in the nocturnal forest is “that the good shrank not from the wicked.” Even the pink of Faith’s ribbons is a mixture of white (purity) and red (associated with guilt and sin in the story). Brown’s propensity to think in terms of God or Satan, the flesh or the spirit, and good or evil has been described as typical of early Puritan New England. In this sense, Hawthorne has written a criticism of society like that of The Scarlet Letter.
Modern critics have interpreted “Young Goodman Brown” in many ways. The story as a critique of society stands out to some. To psychologically inclined readers, Brown journeys into the psyche. The village represents the superego, whereas the forest and darkness become equivalents of the Freudian id. The entire story becomes a portrait of one human mind that discovers the usually suppressed and disquieting reality of animal instinct.
Gender-conscious readers might see Brown’s problem as an inability to accommodate to women as complex individuals. He cannot reconcile the “red” fact of menstrual cycles with the “white” of hallowed motherhood. Faith’s own reality is “pink,” a color that for Brown can only mean a tainting of purity. Brown either “shrank from the bosom of Faith” for her supposedly evil nature or indulged his sexual appetites—since they do have a number of children. Readers may view “Young Goodman Brown” as literary self-revelation, because to write the story, Hawthorne had to distance himself, to observe the human lot just as Brown did. All these perspectives testify to the richness of the story.
Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Young Goodman Brown” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Young Goodman Brown” offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.* For background, here is a plot summary and analysis of Young Goodman Brown *
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Theme of Duplicity in “Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown" the reader quickly realizes that nothing is as it seems. The old man who seems innocuous is a devil, his catechism teacher is taking part in secret evil rituals, and even his wife appears in on the action. Not only is almost everyone Goodman Brown meets very duplicitous, but even objects take on a dual nature. For instance, the staff that the man Goodman Brown meets carries (a man who, oddly enough, is a dual Goodman Brown in appearance—he just happens to be older) is both a staff and a snake that twists and seems to “wriggle itself like a living serpent." For this essay on “Young Goodman Brown" look at the role duplicity plays and consider the ways in which these dual characteristics of people and objects serves as an extended set of metaphors. Even if this was all a dream that Young Goodman Brown had, it might be more helpful for this essay to assume not.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Meaning and Importance of Names in “Young Goodman Brown"
One of the major themes in “Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne is duplicity and the way that nothing is as it seems. Using elements from essay question 1, consider the role and importance of names in this text. For instance, the title character “Goodman Brown" has a name that at first suggests innocence and the will to do good (good-man) yet the last name—Brown suggests something that is darkened or otherwise soiled. This is especially interesting considering what the old man tells Young Goodman Brown of his father and his lineage. Equally worthy of note (and along similar lines) is the name “Goody" for the old woman or “Faith" for his wife. Assuming that Young Goodman Brown was not simply dreaming, the names are all ironic because they reflect characteristics that are not present.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: “Young Goodman Brown" and Complimentary Themes Found in Other Works By Nathaniel Hawthorne
One of the best ways to consider many of the themes in “Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is to look it in the context of his other works. In other short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne such as “The Minister’s Black Veil" or novels like “The Scarlet Letter," Hawthorne consistently explores similar ideas about the nature of good and evil, the influence of Puritan ideas and the Puritan community in general, as well as guilt, both in a public and private sense. For this essay on “Young Goodman Brown" examine one theme (for example, guilt, sin, or the Puritan community) and compare it to both “The Minister’s Black Veil" “The Birthmark" or “The Scarlet Letter." A good structure for this essay would involve a thesis statement discussing the theme you’re examining, followed by one or two paragraphs devoted to each other text. Conclude the essay with a statement on how, through these works, Nathaniel Hawthorne is making a statement about the theme or even set of symbols you’ve chosen or about Puritan society in general.
* Other possible essay topics for “Young Goodman Brown" include examining the role of the setting and considering why Nathaniel Hawthorne goes through such great lengths to establish such a rich sense of place. Also, there are a number of symbols and rich examples of imagery (especially when used as metaphors) throughout the text to consider and looking at the representation of women (as either completely evil and witch-like or completely good and wholesome). One more essay idea might be to examine the way the forest and the natural world in “Young Goodman Brown" function as an actual character with motivations, moods, and an independent will.
* For background, here is a plot summary and analysis of Young Goodman Brown *
This list of important quotations from “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Young Goodman Brown” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for “Young Goodman Brown” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes from “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorn contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.
“The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him [Goodman Brown] in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil" (273).
A particular rock bore a “resemblance to either an altar or a pulpit" (274).
“The red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in the shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once" (274).
(Of Faith) “Well, she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven" (272).
“On he flew, among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man" (276).
“Another verse of the hymn arose, a slow and mournful strain, such as the pious love, but joined to words which expressed all that our nature can conceive of sin, and darkly hinted at far more. Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends” (277).
“Nature was laughing him to scorn” (275)
“how hoary bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households.”(276)
“my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven! Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?”(274)
“But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and not from its other horrors”(277)