I once read “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne during my junior year of high school and I believed it was a very confusing story. My second time reading it, it started to make much more sense as I can similarly relate to the story. It is one of the greatest short stories ever written and I believe that it is a beautifully structured story with deep mythic undertones and a mystery at its heart. Hawthorne does an excellent job with the use of symbols and presents an enlightening unexpected lesson at the end.
In order to properly understand the idea behind “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one must understand the context and setting in which it is set. The story is set in a Puritan society, as are other works by Hawthorne, and being as such, immediately evokes a sense of rigid religious structure and societal expectation. The character of Goodman Brown is one who is as much a part of this society and its mindset as the society is of his. Understanding how strictly members of Puritan society are expected to uphold the beliefs perpetuated by its philosophy, it is almost given that the structure of this system will more likely bend before it breaks.
At the very beginning of the story we witness young Goodman Brown step through the threshold of his house door, and turn back in order to give a parting kiss to his wife, Faith. This passage is dripping with allegory as it can easily be discerned that young Goodman Brown, while parting with his wife, Faith, for this journey, will be the cause of him parting with his faith, his belief in the ideology he has upheld his entire life. We see a very similar idea being presented when young Goodman Brown explains the reason behind his tardiness as being held back by Faith, (interesting to point out that the word is capitalized, which can be considered obvious as it is a proper noun, and the beginning of a sentence, but can also be understood as young Goodman Brown conveying the importance of his faith, by putting it before all else). These narratively styled foreshadowing is constantly seen throughout the story and as such consistently hints at an eventual event, which causes young Goodman Brown to actually experience a break and alienation from his faith and belief. After having witnessed the events in the forest, there is a brief passage explaining young Goodman Brown’s confusion as to whether or not the events he witnessed actually occurred, an excellent way of conveying the confusion a believer experiences when they first begin to question their deep held beliefs. But regardless of the authenticity of the event, the story concludes with young Goodman Brown being described as having been transformed into, “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not desperate man.” These qualities, being the very antithesis of how young Goodman Brown is portrayed at the beginning of the story, are displayed by young Goodman Brown due to him having witnessed the hypocrisy that permeates every level of the society in which he lives. His idea of the world that he has inhabited his entire life has been destroyed and at the end of the story he finds himself without reason to believe in what he is surrounded by. This story represents a departure from belief in ones surroundings and philosophical upbringing and as such, is the allegorical description of a fall from grace.
Nathaniel Hawthorne leaves it up to us readers to decide whether young Goodman Brown’s journey is a dream or reality. I view the story as a dream since a lot of things that have occurred in the story didn’t seem to something that would happen in real life such as people vanishing all of sudden in the forest or showing their true colors all together at once. His dream was an invention of his own imagination to symbolize his loss of faith in religion and God. The dream presented is extremely beneficial to the development of the story, as it gives us a new view of the plot itself and the characters within. At the same time, however, it becomes difficult to determine how much of a dream has been affected by the character, and how much is pure fantasy. The dream presented is a clever use of symbolism to get at the deeper meaning of the story.
I believe the allegory of this story rings true today. Even today we see many examples of fundamentalist religious societies such as Islamic states and heavily religion based governments such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. The people of these nations are set to believe certain things without questioning it. If one goes against it, it becomes a great issue and problems starts to expand within the nation. These can be seen as mirroring the societal framework presented in “Young Goodman Brown” and thus, can be questioned of their authenticity and complete true devotion of its adherents.