Morality does not exist in a vacuum; moral beliefs, judgments, and acts are only possible within the context of interpersonal relationships. The various forms of human relations can at once reflect and influence morals. Throughout his writing career, Nathaniel Hawthorne pays close attention to the questions of morality. Hawthorne’s views on the matter are strongly informed by the writer’s ambivalent relationship with his Puritan heritage (Chelliah 3). While admiring the Puritans’ moral concern, he is troubled by their hypocrisy and repression. He sees that in their anxiousness to avoid or punish evil, his ancestors often ended up committing terrible sins. A similar and undoubtedly related duality can be observed in Hawthorne’s treatment of human relationships in his works. Although the bonds between individuals and within the community ought to serve as a source of moral strength, their innate flaws could lead to corruption and isolation (Chelliah 6). Among Hawthorne’s short stories, Young Goodman Brown offers the most thorough exploration of the connection between human relationships and morality.
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Young Goodman Brown examines the moral downfall of the eponymous protagonist, a Puritan living in colonial New England. Though seemingly an upstanding member of his community, Brown goes into the woods at night for an unspecified “evil purpose” (Hawthorne 346). There, he meets a stranger who is usually understood to be the Devil (Chelliah 7). Despite a prior arrangement with the stranger, Brown tries to back out of it, citing various relationships that would keep him from dealing with evil. He lists his ancestors, his pious people, members of his community, and his wife. His companion methodically discredits all of them except the last. It transpires that all of them have had some dealings with him. The presence of other members of the community in the forest appears to confirm his words. Shaken, Brown tries to leave but hears his wife’s voice. While searching for her, he comes upon a gathering of townspeople officiated by the stranger, who initiates two new members: Brown and his wife. Waking up in the forest, Brown returns home but is unable to trust anyone after his experience and eventually dies in gloom.
The historical setting of the story serves to reinforce the theme. It is set in Salem in the reign of King William III, around the time of the infamous witch trials (Hawthorne 346n4). The stranger alludes to other instances of violence and repression in the region’s history, supporting his assertion that the Puritans have never been as morally pure as Brown would like to believe (Hawthorne 347). The ease with which the Devil can mingle among them also emphasizes this point. The townspeople who Brown had thought to be righteous all turn out to be hypocrites who are happy to consort with evil. Though upright and naïve, Brown is willing to do the same. His wife is depicted as innocent, but even she comes to the forest, causing Brown to despair, renounce his Puritan beliefs, and abruptly embrace evil. During the gathering, the stranger declares that “depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped, that virtue were not all a dream” (Hawthorne 353). Having now lost the implied moral support of his ancestors, his community, and his wife, Brown has no choice but to withdraw into mistrustful self-isolation.
Hawthorne employs a vivid symbolic language to enhance his message. Most of the townspeople bear the names of figures associated with Salem’s history, especially the witch trials, further strengthening the historical allusions (Hawthorne 348n3). Brown’s wife is named Faith, and copious wordplay draws attention to the fact that she, or his religious faith, is his most critical connection to a moral life. The dark forest starts out being the opposite of the God-fearing village, with Brown always on the lookout for deviltry (Hawthorne 347). By the end of the story, however, Brown begins to see deviltry in the village as well (Hawthorne 354). While Hawthorne provides abundant clues to the stranger’s supernatural identity, he also repeatedly draws attention to how closely he resembles Brown in clothes, manners, and appearance. The gathering in the woods is described as “dark-clad” (Hawthorne 352), which is both the traditional fashion of the Puritans and in line with the Devil’s color symbolism. Thus, Brown can find no escape from evil, as all places and people are touched by it.
In Young Goodman Brown, Hawthorne exposes the Puritans’ failure to avoid evil while also relating the personal tragedy of its protagonist. Tempted by sin, he tries to find the strength to fight it in his relationships with his ancestors, community, and spouse. One by one, all of those sources of strength are stripped away from him as the ubiquity of evil is revealed. In their attempt to be morally pure, the Puritans only succeed in hiding their sins. The young man’s fateful visit to the forest strips away the townspeople’s appearance of virtue and makes him realize that the pious village is just as corrupt as the outside world. Brown’s crisis of faith leaves him morally and spiritually incapacitated, as he can no longer trust his community or his family. Bereft of the critical human relationships that he once put much stock in, the Goodman is left to die in despair.
Chelliah, S. “Solitude and Isolation as the Inevitable Penalty of Sin and Evil: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Short Story World.” Language in India, vol. 19, no. 10, 2019, Web.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. B., edited by Robert S. Levine et al., W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 345-354.
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