In Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the tale of a man and his discovery of evil. Hawthorne's primary concern is with evil and how it affects Young Goodman Brown. Through the use of tone and setting, Hawthorne portrays the nature of evil and the psychological effects it can have on man. He shows how discovering the existence of evil brings Brown to view the world in a cynical way. Brown learns the nature of evil and, therefore, feels surrounded by its presence constantly.
Hawthorne creates a serious and somber tone throughout much of the story. From the start, the audience gets a sense that Brown will go through relentless agony from the devilish stranger. His diction in the opening paragraphs is a good indicator of this. He uses words such as "melancholy", "evil", "dreary", and "grave" to evoke a certain mood in the reader. There is little relief from this seriousness that would suggest that Hawthorne's attitude about the story be hopeful. Brown's attitude and actions portray a negative view of Salem and its people. He ponders the hypocrisy of the town as well as that of the Puritans. He examines the possibility that evil and corruption exist in a town that is supposedly characterized by piety and devout faith.
The story is set in seventeenth-century Salem, a time and place where sin and evil were greatly analyzed and feared. The townspeople, in their Puritan beliefs, were obsessed with the nature of sin and with finding ways to be rid of it altogether through purification of the soul. At times, people were thought to be possessed by the devil and to practice witchcraft. As punishment for these crimes, some were subjected to torturous acts or even horrible deaths. Thus, Hawthorne's choice of setting is instrumental in the development of theme.
He uses contrast as a means to portray the village as good and the forest as bad. This adds significance to the fact that Brown begins his journey in the town and proceeds then to the forest. The use of imagery captures the appearance of the forest as well as lending a sense of foreboding towards the impending evil. Hawthorne says of Brown, "He had taken a dreary road, darkened by the gloomiest trees of the forest It was all as lonely as it could be" (2208). Immediately following this description, Brown speculates that he may not be alone in the forest. He fears that there may be a "devilish indian" or "the devil himself" in his presence (2208). He is disturbed by the fact that he "knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude" (2208). This suggests to the reader that he is no longer feeling the comfort and safety he felt at home and is suspicious of what lies ahead. Brown is fearful of his mission even before leaving. However, in leaving the village, he leaves religious order, the familiarity of the scenery, and his beloved Faith. Upon entering the forest, he becomes victim to the possibility of the discovery and consequences of evil. In fact, it is in the forest where evil manifests itself to him in the form of an older man of the same dress and class as Brown. It is this experience which ultimately affects his outlook of the world.
Taken at a literal level, the story is about a man who goes on a journey to the forest and encounters various strange situations. However, the narrator is working on two levels. There are objects and characters in the story which are representative of something else. For instance, Brown's wife, Faith, represents religious faith. She also exemplifies what it means to be a good woman and wife. He worries that Faith's dreams are warnings although she is his only justification for making the evil journey. She is his hope for an excellent future'. Brown describes her as, "blessed angel on earth" and promises that...