Symbolism in Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne

What defines one as innocent? Innocence is often supplementary to youth, ignorance, and naivety; and the loss of innocence occurs when exposed to the evils of the world. Corruption can happen in any culture or race, and eventually does happen at some point in life. Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Young Goodman Brown" epitomizes the loss of innocence. Hawthorne was an American novelist and short story writer from Salem, Massachusetts. Hawthorne wrote about various themes, “he included themes such as adultery, heresy and witchcraft in his work” (Means).

In "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne's use of symbolism, setting, and allusion contribute to the portrayal of the theme of loss of innocence.

The story "Young Goodman Brown" is highly allegorical. With character names such as "Faith" and "Goodman Brown" the reader can see that they are much more than names; they are symbols. Through symbolism, Hawthorne is able to convey to the reader how that even with a highly reputable religious background, no one remains truly innocent indefinitely.

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The protagonist's wife, Faith, is a symbol of Brown's spiritual faith. Faith tries to keep her husband from his journey in the woods. Faith attempts to prevail, but "Faith's admonition to “put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed tonight” suggests that the influence of Faith over Brown is essentially negative. The insubstantiality of Brown's religious faith manifests itself" (Matthews). Hawthorne's use of Faith as a character personifies the innocent nature of someone in good faith. With her "pretty head" and "pink ribbons of her cap" Hawthorne emphasizes the youthful and childish manner of Faith, how pure and uncorrupt she is.

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By the end of the story, however, she has gone to the forest with the other "converts" (Hawthorne 493). Faith, the purest thought of Brown's existence, has converted to Satanism. She serves to personify how good faith can be wavered, and to convey to the reader how even the purest, seemingly innocent people can be corrupt. The story's title and the protagonists name, "Young Goodman Brown" also serves as a symbol of youth and the inevitable loss of innocence. The protagonist's tittle, "Young Goodman" portrays the sense that he is innocently youthful and has the will to be upright; however, his last name, “Brown” suggests that he is soiled or has a dark nature about him. Brown has potential to have good faith, but as he enters the dark woods and is consumed by darkness, “he is plunging into the road leading to despair, and the immediate closing of the trees symbolizes the shutting off of his escape. He is alone, cut off from humanity with but one companion, the devil, his own evil genius.” (Walsh) Brown, like his wife, serves to show the reader how the young and good can be corrupted.

Along with symbolism, Hawthorne's use of setting shows the reader how corruption can happen to the innocent, especially in the darkest of places. Goodman Brown starts his journey by leaving Hawthorne's hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. In history, this town is known for housing the Salem Witch Trials. This makes for an ideal place to start a journey that "haste on a present evil purpose" (Hawthorne 487). By utilizing his historic hometown as a setting, Hawthorne shows the reader that the seemingly good protagonist has already started on his journey to corruption. As Brown reaches the woods, Hawthorne establishes a gloomy, dark, evil mood. This setting provides a place for innocence to perish. As in most tales, “The magic forest is always full of adventures. No one can enter it without losing his way. The forest has always been a place of initiation for there the demonic presences, the ancestral spirits, and the forces of nature reveal themselves” (Zimmer 182). Brown’s forest experience is comparable. As Brown walks deeper into the woods he is succumbed by a narrowing path, closed by tree limbs, and black masses of clouds. The reader can visualize the corruption happening. Hawthorne's use of the dark woods as a setting further emphasizes the loss of innocence in Goodman Brown.

Several allusions are made throughout "Young Goodman Brown"; Hawthorne's references to various texts and historical events enrich the readers understanding of Brown's loss of innocence. Hawthorne utilizes his hometown of Salem for the setting, by establishing this setting he also has created an allusion to the historical aspects of the town: The Salem Witch Trials. This story, "because its raw material is the Puritan mind cast in the setting of the Salem witchcraft delusion, has often been seen as a skillful exposition of the extremes of that mind itself" (St. Armand). The Puritan extremists of the time, although they were thought to be well-minded people, were ironically very brutal and cruel to those accused of witchcraft. By providing this allusion, Hawthorne conveys how the purest of people are corrupted. Along with the historical allusions, "Young Goodman Brown" also has many biblical allusions. These allusions add emphasis to the central theme of the loss of innocence. Brown's wife, Faith, is an allusion to religious faith. Brown mentions seeing a serpentine staff, Heaven, the devil, and an altar along his journey through the woods. These allusions portray the struggle between good and evil, and add to the struggle of staying innocent and pure in presence of the devil. These biblical references give the reader a tangible way to identify with Brown and his struggle to stay pure; this enhances the reader's overall experience with the corruption of innocence.

To conclude, Hawthorne's use of symbolism, setting, and allusion in his short story "Young Goodman Brown" portray the loss of innocence. His symbolic characters exemplify how the purest of people can become corrupt. The story's settings of Salem and the dark woods emphasize the corruption that happens to Brown. By providing the several biblical and historical allusions, Hawthorne portrays a tangible experience with Brown's corruption. When the loss of innocence occurs, it is an unforgettable experience. Corruption can happen to even the purest of all people, but once corruption has occurred, innocence cannot be regained. This is the ruined fate of corruption: the loss of purity.

Works cited

  1. Hawthorne, N. (1835). Young Goodman Brown. New England Magazine, 1(6), 533-548.
  2. Matthews, J. H. (1966). Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: An Interpretation. The Western Humanities Review, 20(1), 1-14.
  3. Means, R. (2013). The Themes of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Journal of Education and Socialization, 2(2), 99-105.
  4. Walsh, C. E. (1951). Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: An Attack on Puritanic Calvinism. PMLA, 66(3), 646-653.
  5. Zimmer, H. (1971). Initiation in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 70(2), 181-194.
  6. Levin, D. (1986). The Conversion of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”. Studies in Short Fiction, 23(2), 161-167.
  7. Martin, T. (1995). Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, 5, 2995-2998.
  8. Skredsvig, K. D. (2010). The Corrupted Puritan Community: An Analysis of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”. The Explicator, 68(3), 187-190.
  9. Schilb, J. (1982). Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown: Allegory and Symbolism. The English Journal, 71(2), 54-57.
  10. McKeithan, D. (1966). Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown: An Approach to an Interpretation. The Southern Literary Journal, 1(2), 43-50.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Symbolism in Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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