Goodman Brown shows both innocence and corruptibility as he vacillates between believing in the inherent goodness of the people around him and believing that the devil has taken over the minds of all the people he loves. At the beginning of the story, Goodman Brown believes in the goodness of his father and grandfather, until the old man, likely the devil, tells him that he knew them both. Goodman Brown believes in the Christian nature of Goody Cloyse, the minister, and Deacon Gookin, until the devil shows him that Goody Cloyse is a witch and the other two are his followers. Finally, he believes that Faith is pure and good, until the devil reveals at the ceremony that Faith, too, is corruptible. This vacillation reveals Goodman Brown’s lack of true religion—his belief is easy to shake—as well as of the good and evil sides of human nature.
Through Goodman Brown’s awakening to the evil nature of those around him, Hawthorne comments on what he sees as the hidden corruption of Puritan society. Goodman Brown believes in the public professions of faith made by his father and the elders of his church and in the societal structures that are built upon that faith. Hawthorne suggests, however, that behind the public face of godliness, the Puritans’ actions were not always Christian. The devil in the story says that he was present when Brown’s father and grandfather whipped Quakers and set fire to Indian villages, making it clear that the story of the founding of New England has a dark side that religion fails to explain. The very fact that Goodman Brown is willing to visit the forest when he has an idea of what will happen there is an indication of the corruptibility and evil at the heart of even the most faithful Puritan.
Faith represents the stability of the home and the domestic sphere in the Puritan worldview. Faith, as her name suggests, appears to be the most pure-hearted person in the story and serves as a stand-in of sorts for all religious feeling. Goodman Brown clings to her when he questions the goodness of the people around him, assuring himself that if Faith remains godly, then his own faith is worth fighting temptation to maintain. When he sees that Faith has been corrupted, he believes in the absolute evil at the heart of man. His estrangement from Faith at the end of the story is the worst consequence of his change of heart. If he is able to be suspicious of Faith, Hawthorne suggests, then he has truly become estranged from the goodness of God.
The Old Man/Devil
In “Young Goodman Brown,” the devil appears to be an ordinary man, which suggests that every person, including Goodman Brown, has the capacity for evil.
When the devil appears to Goodman Brown in the forest, he wears decent clothes and appears to be like any other man in Salem Village, but Goodman Brown learns that the devil can appear in any context and not appear out of place. By emphasizing the devil’s chameleon nature, Hawthorne suggests that the devil is simply an embodiment of all of the worst parts of man. By saying that the devil looks as though he could be Goodman Brown’s father, Hawthorne creates a link between them, raising the questions of whether the devil and Goodman Brown might be related or the devil might be an embodiment of Goodman Brown’s dark side. Later in the story, Goodman Brown, flying along with the devil’s staff on his way to the ceremony, appears to be a much more frightening apparition than any devil could be by himself. Although it is never fully clear whether the old man and Goodman Brown’s experiences in the forest were a dream or reality, the consequences of Goodman Brown’s interaction with the old man stay with him for the rest of his life.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Weakness of Public Morality
In “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne reveals what he sees as the corruptibility that results from Puritan society’s emphasis on public...