Young Goodman Brown

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Family and Individual Choice Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Hypocrisy of Puritanism Theme Icon
Losing Faith and Innocence Theme Icon
Nature and the Supernatural Theme Icon
Saints vs. Sinners Theme Icon
Family and Individual Choice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Young Goodman Brown, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family and Individual Choice Theme Icon

Young Goodman Brown makes reference to many generations of the Brown family, both Goodman Brown’s ancestors and his descendants. Goodman Brown must choose whether to follow his ancestors’ example, for better or for worse, or whether to make his own decisions and break away from family tradition. The tragedy of the story is that he is unable to choose: he loses faith in following family tradition, but he can’t reject his family and start new traditions, either. The story begins very soon after Goodman Brown has begun a family of his own by marrying Faith. She tries to dissuade him from going into the woods by calling him “dear husband” and “dearest heart” and referring to his duty as a husband to stay at home. At first, his curiosity draws him to the devil, but the thought of his Puritan ancestors makes him want to turn back: “We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs; and I shall be the first of the name of Brown that ever took this path.”

Because his family legacy (as he understands it) and his individual desire are opposed, he stops and starts on the path, unable to move forward or to turn back. The devil takes on the guise of Goodman Brown’s grandfather in order to influence Goodman Brown to become one of his followers. He tries to resist family tradition by thinking of his new family. He thinks of Faith and sits on the path, refusing to go on, but when he hears her voice among those of the devil-worshippers in the sky and sees her pink ribbon fall, he can no longer resist the devil. Without family to guide him, he can’t choose for himself. He “loses faith” in his family, and so he loses all sense of himself. At the devil’s ceremony, Goodman looks at Faith and again remembers their family bond: “The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and she at him.” He opposes the devil by telling her to resist: “‘Faith!’ cried the husband, ‘look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.”

Part of the story’s tragedy comes from the family’s failure to communicate their legacy. When the devil tells Goodman that his family members were friends with the devil, Goodman says, “I marvel they never spoke of these matters; or, verily, I marvel not, seeing that the least rumor of the sort would have driven them from New England”; though knowledge of his family history would have helped Goodman make his individual choices, he realizes that such honesty, even between family members, would have been dangerous. When Goodman arrives at the devil’s conversion ceremony, he thinks he sees his mother telling him to resist and his father telling him to advance in the smoke, but because their messages are contradictory and unclear, he can’t make a choice of his own: “Was it his mother? But he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought.” When Goodman returns to Salem, he can’t tell his wife, his children, or his grandchildren what he experienced, and so he dooms his descendants to the same trapped existence. He can’t break away from his family, even though he no longer believes in following his family’s legacy.

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Family and Individual Choice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family and Individual Choice appears in each chapter of Young Goodman Brown. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Family and Individual Choice Quotes in Young Goodman Brown

Below you will find the important quotes in Young Goodman Brown related to the theme of Family and Individual Choice.
Young Goodman Brown Quotes

"Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, "pr'y thee, put off your journey until sunrise, and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she's afeard of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!"

Related Characters: Faith (speaker), Goodman Brown
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Faith's plea for Goodman Brown to stay with her instead of leaving on his journey introduces the moral conflict of the story. Goodman Brown can listen to his wife Faith (who also stands in for his religious faith) and remain in Salem, or he can journey into the woods. It's significant that the story begins with Goodman Brown in a conflict with Faith about his journey; this lets readers know that there are moral stakes to his journey, in that he seems to be leaving his wife (and, metaphorically, his religious faith) in peril by going.

Faith's insistence that she cannot be home alone with her thoughts and dreams is also significant, as it is a statement that reverberates throughout the story. For the Puritans, thoughts and dreams present real danger, and sin is not limited to a person's literal actions. Her statement might mean that Faith, whom Goodman Brown assumes is innocent and pure, is capable of imagining or dreaming the same experience of sin that Goodman Brown finds in the forest. This interpretation is strengthened by Faith's presence in the woods later that night, and by the narrator's speculation at the end of the story that Goodman Brown's experience in the woods might have been a nightmare or simply imagined. While this quotation seems rather innocuous at the beginning of the story, as Goodman Brown moves through the nightmarish woods it begins to take on a darkness that it did not originally possess, hinting that even Faith, the emblem of Puritan goodness, might herself be capable of sin. 


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"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; 't would 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."

Related Characters: Goodman Brown (speaker), Faith
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the story Goodman Brown becomes more and more suspicious of his Puritan community, and this quotation is the first inkling of the full-blown paranoia to come. Goodman Brown entertains for a moment the possibility that Faith could have learned from a sinful dream the purpose of his journey into the woods, but he then dismisses the thought. He states that it is impossible because it "would kill her to think it," implying that she is too pure and good to suspect such a thing. 

In the context of the story as a whole, this quote points to both Goodman Brown's black-and-white worldview that one must be either wholly a saint or wholly a sinner, and also to his own delusions about himself. While he seems to believe that Faith can only be good and that even an inkling of sin would kill her, he simultaneously believes that he himself can dabble in sin on this journey without fundamentally changing himself. He believes that after one night of sin he can return to Salem and be good for the rest of his life, ultimately following Faith to heaven. This conflict between Goodman Brown's worldview and who he perceives himself to be is one that the story will disastrously resolve.

"You are late, Goodman Brown," said he. "The clock of the Old South was striking, as I came through Boston; and that is full fifteen minutes agone."
"Faith kept me back awhile," replied the young man, with a tremor in his voice, caused by the sudden appearance of his companion, though not wholly unexpected.

Related Characters: Goodman Brown (speaker), The Devil (speaker), Faith
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation serves to make clear, if it wasn't already, the double meaning of Faith's name. When Goodman Brown tells the man that Faith kept him back awhile, he means not simply his wife but also his religious faith, which has caused him to doubt whether he should continue into the woods. Any instance in which Faith's name or person appears in "Young Goodman Brown" can be read with this double meaning.

The woods have been presented so far as frightening and dangerous, and the devil's appearance in the woods cements Goodman Brown's inkling that the woods are full of sin. As the story progresses, though, it becomes clear that evil is not limited to the woods. This is foreshadowed in this quotation when the devil indicates that he has just been in Boston, an orderly and pious city that is, like Salem, full of good Puritans. Just as the devil is not only found in the woods, Goodman Brown is destined to learn that evil and sin are not limited to the woods; wickedness pervades even the town of Salem, a place which Goodman Brown believed to be pure. 

“I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that's no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip's war.”

Related Characters: The Devil (speaker), Goodman Brown’s Father, Goodman’s Grandfather
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the devil is successfully eroding all of Goodman Brown's scruples about continuing down the path to sin. A major obstacle to him accepting sin is his family lineage, which he believes to be made entirely of good Salem Puritans. The devil, by informing Goodman Brown of his own relationship with Goodman Brown's family and ancestors, manipulates Goodman Brown's weak sense of morality, which rests on considering how he would be seen by his family and community. Note that this tactic would never work if Goodman Brown's sense of morality involved personally evaluating individual situations for himself.

The devil's examples of his actions also show how Hawthorne depicts evil as something very human and pervasive—not necessarily something supernatural or black-and-white, as the Puritans want to believe. Religious persecution, war, and murder are often justified by religion, but that doesn't make them any less evil or "devilish."

“"I marvel they never spoke of these matters; or, verily, I marvel not, seeing that the least rumor of the sort would have driven them from New England. We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness.”

Related Characters: Goodman Brown (speaker), The Devil, Goodman Brown’s Father, Goodman Brown’s Mother
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:
Goodman Brown here reveals a key problem with the repressive nature of Puritanism. Because someone's morality is understood in Puritan society as being tied to their outward appearance of goodness and purity, discussion of a person's failings or moral ambiguity is strictly taboo. Perhaps Goodman Brown would have been better able to understand his own sinful impulses if his family had discussed their experiences with him, but he has never heard these matters spoken of, and it distresses him. It only distresses him for a moment, though, since he immediately recognizes that the smallest rumor of the family's wickedness could have led to ostracism from their community, so it wouldn't have been worth the risk of bringing up the subject at all. This silencing of discussion in Puritan society directly leads to Goodman Brown's ineptitude at handling the situation in the woods, and at the end of the quotation we see Goodman Brown return to his self-delusion about the purity of his family ("[we] abide no such wickedness"), the kind of black-and-white logic that prevents him from coming to a nuanced understanding of sin.

“What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil when I thought she was going to heaven: is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith and go after her?"

Related Characters: Goodman Brown (speaker), Faith, The Devil, Goody Cloyse
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:
At this point in the story, Faith's presumed purity and morality are the only things keeping Goodman Brown from giving himself over to the devil. Despite all the hypocrisy that the devil has revealed (Goodman Brown's family's association with the devil, the community's secret sins, and even his own ability to resist sin), Goodman Brown is still clinging to the last scraps of his faith. It is notable here that Goodman Brown is speaking of "quitting" Faith his wife, rather than faith his religion. In this moment of trying to resist the devil, Goodman Brown is appealing to another person, rather than to his God or his own internal moral convictions. The Puritan tendency to locate faith in the seeming goodness of other people rather than in knowing the self to be virtuous is in evidence here.

But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.

Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage reminds readers that all hope is not yet lost for Goodman Brown—he has not yet physically glimpsed Faith in the clearing, and thus he is still able, against all odds, to be surprised that the "good" people in his community are consorting with those of ill repute. Clearly, by this point in the story, Hawthorne has let us know that reputation and outward appearance have little to do with a person's capacity for sin, but Goodman Brown, in this moment maintaining hope that Faith is still pure, makes a naive observation that those of strong faith are not revolted by the "true" sinners. This shows that he is still beholden to the Puritan view that someone is either wholly good or wholly bad, and that those qualities align with a person's appearance or reputation. 

He could have well-nigh sworn that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke wreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother?

Related Characters: Goodman Brown, Goodman Brown’s Father, Goodman Brown’s Mother
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

A consistent issue with Goodman Brown's faith (and, by proxy, Puritan faith in general) has been that his morals are given to him by those in his family and community, and thus morality seems to mean little more to him than preserving his reputation or family tradition. When Goodman Brown is at a pivotal moment in the ritual in the woods, figures that appear to be his parents give him conflicting instructions about what to do. Because of this, he is unable to make a choice at all. Goodman Brown no longer believes his family to be good and pure, but he is not able to repudiate them and make his own choice either, which means he is condemned to repeat their same mistakes and carry on the legacy of hypocritical Puritanism in his own family.

By the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.

Related Characters: Goodman Brown, Faith
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

This ushers in the climax of the story in which Goodman Brown's worst fear, that Faith is impure, is realized. Until this moment he has not physically glimpsed her, and could thus hold out hope that Puritan ideals were still pure in at least one person he respects. Because his faith is so tied to his illusions about his pure community (rather than self-knowledge of goodness and a personal conviction to be good) this revelation about Faith marks the foreclosing of the last possibility for Goodman Brown to maintain idealism about Puritanism. This cements for him the notion that family and community are not to be trusted. 

It is also significant that the red light in which he glimpses Faith and the other members of his community is described as a "blaze of hell-kindled torches." This is another instance of Hawthorne's blending the natural with the supernatural and with evil. The fact that Goodman Brown has seen Faith literally in the light of hell raises questions about what he has actually seen. Is his Puritanism causing him to see her sin in "the worst light" rather than having a nuanced understanding of the complexity of her character and morality? Or has he been tricked by the supernatural into seeing something that doesn't exist? This statement is ambiguous, but it certainly gives readers reason to be suspicious of what Goodman Brown believes he is seeing.

“Depending upon one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

Related Characters: The Devil (speaker), Goodman Brown, Faith
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the devil plays to the black-and-white distinctions made between good and evil people in Puritanism. While it might be possible to attend such a gathering and understand that the people there have sinned but are not necessarily wholly evil, Goodman Brown and the devil subscribe to a much more extreme division of people, as is evident here. Since Goodman Brown has glimpsed his young wife consorting with the devil, he is susceptible to the devil's pronouncement that "evil is the nature of mankind," an extreme statement by any logic except that of Puritanism. 

This passage also speaks to the way that Puritanism externalizes faith, as believers derive their own faith from the appearance of virtue in those around them. The devil refers to the community having depended on "one another's hearts" in order to "hope that virtue were not all a dream." In this way, the devil's words suggest that if the Puritans had a more internalized sense of morality and virtue they would be able to look inside themselves and understand goodness, which would make them able to resist the cynicism inspired by seeing their community sin. Of course, this kind of internalized faith is unlikely by Puritan logic, since everyone is tempted by sin, and the strict Puritan division between wholly good and wholly bad means that if virtue came from within then everyone would know that they were not wholly virtuous. This whole story functions as a critique of the logical end of such a pattern of belief.

"Faith! Faith!" cried the husband, "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one."

Related Characters: Goodman Brown (speaker), Faith, The Devil
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

While Goodman Brown has been unable to resist the devil up to this point, seeing his cherished Faith by the side of the devil gives him the strength to attempt to resist in the form of begging her not to give herself to the devil. In the context of the story, this is a tragic moment in which he has stood up to sin too late. Even though he ultimately resists the devil, which leaves him alone in the forest and subsequently lonely for the rest of his life, he has already been infected by the cynicism and misery of evil. He has, even though he seems to be standing up for it, already lost his faith. It is important to note that Hawthorne writes "cried the husband" rather than "said Goodman Brown." This seems to imply that Goodman Brown may not be standing up for his own moral beliefs, which are, by this point, dashed, but rather he seems to be standing up for the sanctity of family. He is speaking not as an individual, but as an embodiment of the role of the husband protecting his wife. 

Goodman Brown continues to make similar hollow gestures throughout the remainder of the story. He is described as living out his days following Puritan tradition without his heart in it; he still goes to church and raises a Puritan family, but he himself does not believe, and being around the Puritans whom he knows (or believes) to be hypocritical means that the religious gestures torment him.

Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him that she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.

Related Characters: Goodman Brown, Faith
Related Symbols: Faith’s pink ribbons
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

Goodman Brown has now fled the forest and returned to the orderly and pious town of Salem, but he cannot forget what he saw, and he can no longer separate in his mind the goodness of Salem from the evil of the woods. While he seems to be returning to Faith (and to his religious faith), he cannot embrace either after what he has seen. 

That Faith is at home unperturbed with her pink ribbons intact (Goodman Brown saw them fall in the woods) makes us question whether or not Goodman Brown truly saw what he believed he saw. He and Faith met each other's eyes in the woods, but Faith seems either undisturbed by or unaware of this meeting. As Goodman Brown cannot speak with her about his experience (as his family did not speak with him about theirs), he is left wordlessly suspecting her. Her innocence and joy could mean either that she is truly a sinner who is unbothered by having witnessed her husband in the woods, or Goodman Brown has dreamed/imagined the whole encounter, and Faith is not such a wicked sinner. Goodman Brown decides to occupy the space in between, remaining with Faith in name, but feeling his family and his faith to be ultimately empty. 

And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.

Related Characters: Goodman Brown, Faith
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an ominous end to a dark story in that Goodman Brown has never recovered from his experience, and, furthermore, he has not broken with the hypocritical and damaging Puritan tradition that led him to his doom. This implies that his children and grandchildren will have similar experiences and struggles. The ending, in which we see a preview of generations of struggle, cements Hawthorne's dark view of the endless and damaging logic of Puritanism, in which people are not able to be honest with themselves or with each other about their temptations and sins, and they are thus not able to find joy and morality within their own hearts.