Young Goodman Brown: Losing Faith to the Father of Lies
21 April 2015
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell” (The Duchess of Padua). By this epigram he illustrates that every man is his own worst enemy, whether we realize that fact or not. Among the many types of characters in literature, every so often, we come across a protagonist who loses this struggle against his inner demons: he falls then wallows in his tragedy rather than choosing to overcome it. In the short story “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the titular character succumbs to the Devil’s trickery and lies. Though he believes he can flirt with evil and remain unchanged, Brown’s night in the forest transforms him and affects the people around him more than he realizes.
At the beginning of the story, Brown shows himself to be naive and immature as he leaves his wife to attend a Black Sabbath in the forest, coming face to face with the Devil and his own arrogance concerning his faith. Brown is first and foremost the everyman, a man who genuinely wants to be good but is not above temptation. He elevates his wife, calling her “a blessed angel on earth” (315). He also elevates and believes in the virtue of his family and says, “My father never went into the woods … nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs” (316). With this conviction in mind, Brown sets off into the forest, already underestimating the temptation that awaits him and unaware of how it will change his life. He justifies his journey, “his present evil purpose,” by promising himself that “after this one night [he’ll] cling to [Faith’s] skirts and follow her to heaven” (315). When he meets the Devil, Brown apologizes for his lateness, telling the Devil that “Faith kept [him] back awhile” (315). This sentence has a double meaning: “Faith” in the phrase can mean both Brown’s wife as well as his Christian faith. This ambiguity illustrates the importance of both meanings as recurring themes in the story. The narrator notes that “the wife [is] aptly named,” confirming the purposeful double meaning (315). Brown thinks that by meeting with the Devil in the woods, he has fulfilled his “covenant by meeting [him there, and] it is [his] purpose now to return whence [he] came” (316). Taking pride in this seemingly bold venture, Brown boasts that he “shall … be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path” of evil to escape unscathed (316).
However, as Brown enters the forest, the Devil weaves his clever tale of seduction by subtly casting doubt on Brown’s faith, family, and fellow townspeople, ending his crusade for Brown’s soul by delivering a powerful sermon at the story’s climax. No evidence supports the Devil’s claims and stories, which leaves Brown to discern the truth and lies within his oral testimony. The Devil tells him he is “as well acquainted with [Brown’s] family as with ever a one among the Puritans;” he helped Brown’s grandfather “las[h a] Quaker woman” and his father “set fire to an Indian village” (316). He continues, claiming that the “deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with [him]” and governors and politicians have communed with him as well (316). With Brown’s refusal to believe what he sees to be lies, the Devil resorts to visual evidence: illusions. Brown believes his childhood teacher Goody Cloyse to be “a very pious and exemplary dame,” but the Devil presents her as a witch and friend to his evil ways, going so far as to give her his staff to help her on her journey (317). Not knowing how to respond to this scene, all Brown can think is that this “old woman taught [him his] catechism” (318). The Devil leaves the confused Brown to rest for a moment, and Brown makes up his mind to not take another step into the forest. “What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven[?]” he says, “[I]s that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her” (318)? Another double meaning, this sentence highlights the theme of Brown’s wife and his Christian faith being one and the same. However, before Brown can continue on his way, he overhears the minister and deacon, two men he believes to be righteous, discussing the Black Sabbath and their fellow devil-worshipers. Brown feels sick when he hears this and determines that “[he] will yet stand firm against the devil” (319). Even though Brown appears to be full of confidence and resolve, this resolve wavers and fades when he suddenly hears a woman’s voice through the trees. He notices his wife’s ribbons flutter “through the air and ca[tch] on [a] branch” and despairingly thinks “[his] Faith is gone … [and t]here is no good on earth” (319). “Come, devil,” he shouts, “for to thee is this world given” (319). As Brown teeters on the knife-edge of good and evil, the Devil takes advantage of his malleable faith and drives the final nail into the coffin, though he does so in a way that Brown comes to the conclusion the Devil wants on his own. At the Black Sabbath, Brown listens to the Devil’s sermon, surrounded by “[a] grave and dark-clad company” (320). The Devil welcomes his followers “to the communion of [their] race,” revealing to them the sinful nature of all, also revealing Brown’s wife Faith to be one of the company (321). He says to the couple, “Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.” (322). Brown refuses to give in to the Devil’s lies and urges his wife to do the same. All at once, he is alone in the forest and appears to have succeeded in facing his temptation.
When Brown returns to the village a changed man, he does not realize how and to what degree he is changed; he trusts no one and remains distant to all, showing that the Devil’s efforts to tempt him succeeded, though not in the way he imagined. Instead of believing the best about those around him, Brown now underestimates the virtue of others and wants nothing to do with the seemingly pious. He thinks everyone he knows communes with the Devil and that he alone remains committed to his faith; “he shr[inks] from the [minister] as if to avoid an anathema” and “snatch[es] away [a] child” from the catechismal instruction of Goody Cloyse (322). Going so far as to ignore his own wife, he “passes [Faith] without a greeting” and “shr[inks] from her bosom” (322). Here the distinction between his Christian faith and his wife comes to a crossroads. Brown turns away from Faith, his wife, while still believing himself to be a righteous member of his beliefs. Unable to allow himself to participate in church services, he “[can] not listen [to the hymns] because an anthem of sin rush[es] loudly upon his ear” every time he attends (322). He does not trust anyone, and in turn, his relationships are damaged. After his night in the woods, Brown becomes known as “[a] stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” (323). His change in demeanor affects his family, as he now looks at them sternly and “scowl[s] and mutter[s] to himself,” showing he loses faith in them as well as the townspeople (323). When he dies, “a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few,” attend his funeral, but “they carv[e] no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom” (323).
Though he sets out to test his faith, in the end, Brown, and therefore his community, cannot escape the Devil’s influence, and he becomes convinced of his goodness and the wickedness of the rest of the world. As the father of lies, the Devil employs partial truths to convince Brown that the forest’s illusions are his reality, and Brown never realizes that the Devil’s true aim is to twist his already pliable faith in humanity rather than his faith in God. The tale of Goodman Brown warns us away from unnecessary flirtation with the devil in our own souls, showing how quickly and subtly our lives can change for the worse if we choose to entertain our inner darkness and journey down that dark forest path.
(All quotations from “Young Goodman Brown” are taken from the Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, Tenth Edition)