Symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” depicts the journey of a young man going into the woods and losing his faith in humanity. Hawthorne uses the stories of the communion of Goodman Brown and Faith in order to portray that a loss of innocence is eminent, a loss that is illustrated by the symbolism found within the woods. The woods are, in their simplest state, a force of evil; there an ominous traveller bearing the disposition of Satan lurks and reputable members of society are portrayed as being deceptive and depraved. However, the woods are not simply a vehicle for incontestable, unambiguous sin. Although the woods are not evil in their own right, their path has lead straight to sin and corruption on all occasions. The woods, therefore, represent the often enticing primal urges and desires of humanity to which every person must eventually fall prey; the path, the staff, and the pink ribbons serve as symbols within the narrative to manifest the way in which desire operates within a rigid religious worldview.
The path on which Goodman Brown treads represents his conscience or his moral compass. The path is the only thing that separates himself from the woods or his desires, although it proves to be unreliable. Hawthorne describes, “He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind.” Hawthorne depicts the path as being overrun by trees and barely visible to the wanderer; apart from the woods, the path would be clear. In the same way, Goodman Brown’s morals are clouded only once he is introduced to his human desires. Later the path dissipates altogether, leaving Goodman Brown without any concept of what is right and wrong. After Goodman Brown has lost his faith and has succumbed to his fate within the woods, Hawthorne describes, “The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil.” Once Goodman Brown is deep enough within his desires, he is no longer tethered by the inhibitions the path represents. The path that once was his only sense of security ultimately fails him just as it had failed those who came before him and he is left prey to human nature.
The symbolism of the path also bears religious implications; Hawthorne intentionally uses the word “narrow” to describe the path that Goodman Brown follows. The path, more specifically, represents the morals and rules that are instated by narrow worldview of the church. In describing Goodman Brown’s journey along the path as being “as lonely as could be”, Hawthorne alludes to the isolation that the church instills in its members. Goodman Brown feels alone just as pious members of the church believe that they are alone in their battle against temptation because the church condemns and represses the concept of sinful desire rather than acknowledging it as a human experience. The religious connotation adds more weight to the earlier mention of the path’s disappearance. Goodman Brown relies on religion to save him, but in the end even piety is not strong enough to evade human nature.
There is also religious imagery and symbolism within the staff of the ominous traveler that “[bears] the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.” The snake is most commonly used within religious, biblical contexts as a reference to Satan as the tempter in the story of Adam and Eve. Hawthorne uses the staff similarly in “Young Goodman Brown” by making it a symbol of temptation that manifests its effects. Upon first meeting him, the traveller persuades Goodman Brown saying, “Take my staff, if you are so soon weary,” yet he refrains and is able to keep to the path and his morals. Later, with a new staff, the traveller insists again, “when you feel like moving again, there is my staff to help you along,” and Goodman Brown obliges. A staff, by its nature, is a means of support. The traveller presents it as such, claiming that it will relieve him of his weariness. The staff is, therefore, a perfect representation of temptation because well-masked temptation claims that giving into desire is simply a means of coping and making life more bearable.
The traveler’s claims prove to be valid; once Goodman Brown is in possession of the staff, the journey he takes is far more manageable and effortless. Hawthorne describes that he is able to travel “at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run.” The staff, much like temptation, was the necessary intermediate step to bridge the gap between curiosity and participation. The journey may have been made easier, however, in his dependency and ease, Goodman Brown loses the path he formerly vowed to follow away from the woods and allows himself to be led instead to the alter. Symbolically, the morals he previously held close are lost once he lets himself give into temptation, an agent that ultimately leads him to yield to his human desire.
Finally, Faith’s pink ribbons in “Young Goodman Brown” are often described as being a representation of Goodman Brown’s loss of faith. Although this claim is valid, the ribbons can also be interpreted as an adornment that disguises the ugly reality of human nature. Faith is depicted as being a pure woman and a “blessed angel on earth” straight from the mouth of Goodman Brown. Once he goes into the woods, however, he discovers that she is just as tainted and corrupt as the rest of humanity. Just before he is baptized into his “race”, he notices a pink ribbon “caught on the branch of a tree”. He cries out, “My Faith is gone!”, referring to both his wife and the devotion to his religion, because he realizes that religion is simply a device used by humanity to distract from the cruel nature of the world. Underneath the adornment of her piety and her Puritan devotion, or her “pink ribbons”, Faith is simply another sinful soul. This revelation is what leads him to say, “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given.” He rejects Faith upon returning home because he recognizes her pink ribbons for their masking properties and understands that religion does not exempt anyone from the curse of humanity.
The symbols in “Young Goodman Brown” ultimately serve to convey religion’s inability to prevent human nature. In going into the woods, Goodman Brown comes to realize that all of humanity is at the mercy of their desires in spite of piety or morality. The path of regimented religion he follows cannot withstand the woods. The staff of temptation he wields may give him support but it can only lead him deeper into the sinful woods. The pink ribbons he finds can no longer disguise corroded humanity for what it truly is. Hawthorne uses these devices in order to illustrate the futile task of enforcing religion in a race ruled by desire.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown. Boston, MA: New England Magazine, 1835. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” depicts the journey of a young man going into the woods and losing his faith in humanity. Hawthorne uses the stories of the communion of […]