The story takes place during the reign of William III, king of England, who ruled from 1689 to 1702. The scene is Salem, Massachusetts, and the adjacent countryside. At this time, Massachusetts is still an English colony.
The story begins with a tender scene. Young Goodman Brown is about to leave home at sunset. His wife Faith is afraid. She urges her husband not to go. Nevertheless, he feels that he must leave. He has something important to do, and it must be done this very night.
His wife sadly bids him farewell, saying: “Then God bless you! And may you find all well when you come back.”
Her husband replies: “Amen! Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.” They appear to be a pious Puritan family.
Young Goodman Brown has a rendezvous with the devil. An assembly of the wicked is taking place this very night. Goodman Brown is about to join their communion.
Goodman Brown has changed his mind. He tells the devil that he does not want to go. Nevertheless, the devil persuades Brown to walk with him for a while so that they can discuss the matter.
By this time, light is fading, and it is even darker in the dense forest ahead of them. The devil assures his hesitant convert that he has always been a friend of the Brown family. He starts bragging about the help he has given them, saying: “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot., kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village in King Philip’s War.”
The devil also claims that the leaders of his church are in communion with him, even Brown’s minister and Deacon Gookin.
While Goodman Brown is slow to believe what the devil says, he soon learns that the father of lies is telling the truth. In the forest, he sees a pious lady named Goody Cloyse, who taught him the catechism. She is also planning to attend the evil assembly. She recognizes the devil and complains that she has lost her broomstick. The devil gives her his staff, and she quickly disappears.
Goodman Brown finally sits down on a stump and refuses to continue the journey. He does not want to disappoint his wife.
The devil throws him a maple branch from which he has made another staff. He assures Goodman Brown that he will soon change his mind. When he does, the staff will help him complete his journey.
A crowd is heading to the evil assembly. Goodman Brown sees his minister and Deacon Gookin. To his dismay, he sees his wife in the crowd. She seems to have a double mind. She utters lamentations, but her sorrow seems to mingle with a secret delight. She begs them to let her return, but it would grieve her if they granted her request. The crowd urges her onward.
In despair, Goodman Brown grabs the devil’s staff. He seems to fly along the path rather than walk or run. He utters blasphemies and engages in demonic laughter. He soon reaches his destination.
He steals forward and observes the wicked assembly. He sees many Salem residents noted for their sanctity. He hears familiar hymn melodies; but instead of praising God, the singers glorify sin.
A voice then proclaims: “Bring forth the converts!” Goodman Brown emerges from the shadows, and Faith also appears. They are about to be baptized in the name of evil.
Fiend worshipers welcome them. They all have a reputation for holiness, but a voice assures Goodwin Brown that he will soon know how these seemingly pious people have actually lived.
Goodman Brown is filled with distress. He trembles to think that his wife will understand his evil nature, and that he will understand hers. He is afraid that their love will swiftly disappear.
For this reason, Goodwin Brown urges his wife: “Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.”
He does not know how his wife reacts, for he suddenly finds himself alone in the forest.
The next day, when he sees his minister, he shrinks from the venerable saint, just as if he were trying to avoid a curse. When he sees Goody Cloyse teaching a little girl, he snatches the little girl away from her. On the Sabbath [Sunday to the Puritans], it distresses him when the minister preaches and the congregation sings psalms. He cannot even pray with his family because he thinks that his wife has received the evil baptism. When he dies, no hopeful verse is carved on his tombstone because of the gloom of his dying hour.
Typically, Hawthorne casts doubt on the supernatural phenomena of which he writes. After Goodman Brown has returned to Salem, Hawthorne writes: “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?”
Hawthorne indicates in other ways that he regards the witch-meeting as a dream. A significant adornment of Faith is the pink ribbons in her hair. She loses one of them in the forest, but the pink ribbons are still in her hair the next day when she greets her husband. Moreover, she runs to greet him with untarnished joy. Such happiness is not a characteristic of someone who has established communion with the devil.
Nevertheless, Hawthorne leaves the matter open. Faith might have been a good actress, and she might have had other ribbons to replace the one she lost.
The obvious purpose of the story is satire. It reminds me of Holy Willie’s Prayer by Robert Burns. In both cases, satire is directed against hypocrisy; and in both cases, the victim is a leader (or leaders) of a Calvinistic church. In both cases, readers are inevitably oppressed with a feeling of sadness.
I have often noticed that Hawthorne seems disenchanted with Puritanism; but in Young Goodman Brown, cynicism reaches its zenith.
An important lesson may be drawn from the story. Because young Goodman Brown left home on an evil mission instead of staying at home with his wife, his wife was drawn into communion with evil. This is the inevitable result when men do not provide good leadership for their families.
Finally, I think that Hawthorne must have been thinking of the Salem witch trials when he wrote this story. Young Goodman Brown lived in Salem, and the Salem witch trials took place during the reign of King William III.
Young Goodman Brown may be read online. It is presented by World English.