The Theme of Young Goodman Brown
This essay intends to develop an interpretation of the theme of “Young Goodman Brown”.
To come by a clear notion of the theme of “Young Goodman Brown” is no easy task, thanks to the confusing style of the author. As A.N. Kaul says in the “Introduction” to Hawthorne – A Collection of Critical Essays:
Because Hawthorne was much given to evasions, mystifications, and prevarications of various sorts, because he repeatedly confuses the issues by shying sway from them, because he often talks of his fiction in terms of misty legends and faded blooms, because, in short, he seems frequently to disclaim his own vital interests, we must take care not to lose from sight those aspects of his work that are most essential to his vision. . . . (2)
This indefinete approach toward situations in his writings makes Hawthorne very ambiguous. Henry James in Hawthorne says that the reader has to fumble for and grope for the meaning (50); The Norton Anthology: American Literature states in “Nathaniel Hawthorne” that “about his theme he was always ambivalent” (548); H.J. Lang in “How Ambiguous Is Hawthorne?” states three varieties of ambiguity that Hawthorne is guilty of in “Young Goodman Brown” and several other tales (86-87). Ambiguity, doubt, ambivalence; everyone agrees that “Young Goodman Brown” is not open to solid, objective interpretation. Each reader, it would seem, must form his own opinion of the meaning of the tale; there is no correct statement of its themes and sub-themes as for most literary works. Lang proceeds to survey some masterful critics’ interpretations of the tale:
G.E. Woodberry said the theme is “the secrecy of men’s bosoms”; A. Waren said it is about “the devastating effects of moral scepticism.” One of the best expositions of the problem is by Mark Van Doren. Evil “becomes a monster with which he cannot cope. . . .” F.N. Cherry discovered a source in one of Cervantes’ Novelas ejemplares, “The Colloquy of the Dogs,” which contains all the important motifs of Hawthorne’s tale [“Young Goodman Brown”]. It is the life history of the dog Berganza, who is young and inexperienced at first, but gains insight into appearance and reallity, hypocrisy and righteousness, trying hard, at the same time, not to become cynical, though, as a dog, he has every right to be. The climax of his story is the meeting with an old witch, who. . . . (89-90)
I’m sure that the close resemblance between this dog-tale and Hawthorne’s tale is not a very complimentary testimony regarding the theme of the latter.
Terence Martin in Nathaniel Hawthorne talks about the difficult theme of “Young Goodman Brown”:
Assumed in the tale is a radical distinction between dream life and real life; the question proposed to Goodman Brown is into which of these categories good and evil naturally belong. At the outset of the story, Faith asks her husband to postpone his...