What created Goodman Brown? A man so tormented by what even he considered a dream that it changed his life in profoundly negative ways forever. Goodman Brown was a man haunted by his own conscience; he was someone who believed he had committed a serious sin by meeting the devil and participating in a gathering of witches in his dreams. This spoke of an era when people were overwhelmed by religious guilt and superstition. As a result of Brown’s dream, he suspected that everyone in town was in cahoots with the devil, furthermore, his superstition and self-questioning overwhelmed his ability to trust or believe in anyone else. He died a bitter, unhappy and miserable man.
To fully understand the character of Young Goodman Brown, we must first understand the era from which he hails. Although Hawthorne does not directly state whether the plot of this story takes place in 17th century Salem, his references to other characters clearly imply that it does. His references to Martha Carrier, Martha Cory, and Sarah Cloyse, all women hanged by witches in 1692; as well as his reference to King William who ruled England from 1650-1702 speaks to this horrible time where people killed, tortured, burned, executed and suspected that everyone from his sister to their neighbor might be in contact with the devil. As a result of this atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia, Goodman may have felt that his dream was actually a lack of faith on his part. It is possible that he felt so guilty about experiencing this dream that he thought that he, like the people in his life, were guilty of coercing the devil.
Goodman Brown could have been Hawthorne’s expression of his own struggles with his faith in humanity and in himself. Hawthorne was a guilty person and I think he had many cases where his faith was tested. Brown is Hawthorne to a lesser extent. Goodman Brown starts out as a good, happy, decent man; he seems very happy. This all changes when he decides against the advice of his wife (the symbolism is obvious here) that he must go on a journey into the woods to meet the devil. I believe the path in the woods is his continual descent into darkness both metaphorically and literally. As he advances through the forest, he reaches the pinnacle of his journey when he meets the gathering of witches. Once Brown reaches this point, he loses faith despite his last ditch effort to save his wife. He never knows if he could save her. This doubt is what destroyed him.
Brown’s motivation for meeting with the devil is never fully made clear and can only be speculated from the devil’s references to others who have entered his fold. He talks about the king, Goodman’s father and grandfather, deacon, minister and mayor. The devil makes it seem like everyone with any power, success, or anyone who means anything to Goodman is in fact in league with Satan. Although Goodman resists the devil’s temptations at first; as more and more people draw attention to him as followers of the dark, the idea becomes more acceptable. I think Brown’s motivation for meeting the devil was power; he wanted an advantage over others to achieve his goals. This may have contributed to his last ditch effort to save the faith when he cried out “Look up to heaven and resist the Evil One”. When he arrived at the gathering of witches he discovered that everyone already had the advantage of being on the side of the wicked and had already sold souls for money, power or prestige. He could see that nothing would put him ahead of others by going ahead with his original task. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose by making an alliance with the devil. Unfortunately for Young Goodman Brown, it was too late to save his soul. He reached the point of no return and not only did he get no benefit from his ordeal, but he lost all the happiness he previously possessed.
Goodman Brown was a man destroyed by his own obsession. He lived a miserable life as a result of the guilt he felt for going on a dark journey in his dreams; resulting in his suspicion of everyone and a lack of trust for individuals in the community of him, himself, and humanity. The only way Goodman Brown could have saved his faith would have been to never start down the dark path.
by John Schlisman