The Themes in “Young Goodman Brown”
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” the reader finds several themes. These will be discussed in this essay.
Morse Peckham in “The Development of Hawthorne’s Romanticism” explains what he interprets Hawthorne’s main theme to be:
Once the self has been redeemed from society it can be explored in its own terms, and for this purpose Hawthorne developed his peculiar use of emblematic allegory. . . . This technique, though Hawthorne’s is different from that of European writers, creates analogies between self and not-self, between personality and the worlds. . . .Henceforth Hawthorne’s theme is the redemption of the self through the acceptance and exploitation of what society terms the guilt of the individual but which to the Romantic is society’s guilt (92).
The interplay between the guilt of the individual, Goodman, and society’s guilt, underlies all of “Young Goodman Brown” from beginning to end.
In reading Hawthorne’s tales, Herman Melville in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (in Literary World, August 17, 24, 1850) makes discoveries relevant to the themes:
Where Hawthorne is known, he seems to be deemed a pleasant writer, with a pleasant style,--a sequestered, harmless man, from whom any deep and weighty thing would hardly be anticipated:--a man who means no meanings. But there is no man, in whom humor and love, like mountain peaks, soar to such a rapt height, as to receive the irradiations of the upper skies;--there is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet. Or, love and humor are only the eyes, through which such an intellect views this world. …
The humor in “Young Goodman Brown” is not so apparent to this reader as is the love; I refer to the deep love which Goodman has for his wife, Faith. When he says goodbye and starts down the street, headed for the forest, the protagonist really feels a deep consideration for Faith’s feelings:
"Poor little Faith!" thought he, for his heart smote him. "What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done tonight. But, no, no! 'twould kill her to think it. Well; she's a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I'll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven."
This love of Brown’s continues throughout the tale. Enroute along the path with the sinister fellow-traveler, Goodman repeatedly recalls his feelings for his wife:
"Well, then, to end the matter at once," said Goodman Brown, considerably nettled, "there is my wife, Faith. It would break her dear little heart; and I'd rather break my own!"