At sunset in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, a man named Goodman Brown has just stepped over the threshold of the front door of his house. On his way out, he leans his head back inside to kiss his wife goodbye as she, “aptly” named Faith, leans out toward the street to embrace him. Faith is wearing a cap adorned with pink ribbons that flutter in the wind.
Hawthorne creates a stark contrast between the seemingly perfect young newlyweds and their sinister setting, Salem at nightfall. Their names, “Faith” and “Goodman,” promise the characters’ piety and morality, and Faith’s ribbons seem child-like and innocent. But the setting of the story is important—Salem is the Puritan town famous for its murderous and hypocritical “Witch Trials”—suggesting that either sin or a problematic terror of sin lie beneath the beautiful exterior.
Faith pleads with Goodman Brown not to leave her alone all night and instead to set out on his journey at sunrise. She’s afraid of the bad dreams she’ll have if he makes her spend the night alone. Goodman Brown replies, somewhat mysteriously, that his journey must take place between sunrise and sunset, and begs Faith not to doubt his intentions. Faith relents and gives Goodman Brown her blessing, and he heads out in the street. He looks back one last time and sees Faith watching him sadly despite the pink ribbons on her cap.
The threshold of the house symbolizes a turning point, a moment in which Goodman Brown can choose to listen to Faith and stay at home as a good husband, or follow his curiosity and go off alone into the night. Faith’s fear of bad dreams suggest a few possibilities: that there may be something evil and supernatural about Brown’s mysterious nighttime journey; that she may simply fear being lonely without her husband at home; or that she worries about what she might do without her husband around.
Now walking along on his way, Goodman Brown feels a crushing sense of guilt over leaving Faith, not just because she begged him to stay and comfort her, but because it looked as though, through some dream, she might have figured out what he was intending to do on that night. He dismisses the thought, though, convinced that no one as pure and innocent as Faith could ever tolerate even thinking about such a thing.
Guilt and paranoia are key emotions in the story. Goodman Brown feels crushing guilt not only because he is abandoning Faith but also because he fears that Faith knows about the sinful purpose of his journey. He fears being discovered to be a sinner and he is certain that Faith is saint-like, and so it doesn’t occur to him that Faith might be begging him to stay at home to keep them both from going into the forest that night and sinning.
Goodman Brown resolves, after this one night, to stand by Faith after tonight and someday “follow her to heaven.” This promise to himself comforts him, and so he feels justified in picking up his pace toward his “evil purpose.”
Even though Goodman Brown just lied to his wife and admits to himself that his journey is evil, he continues to think of himself as one of the Elect, the people who the Puritans believe are predestined by God to go to heaven. He believes that his wife’s saintliness will make him saintly, too. He seems to think he can just dip a toe into sin and then draw back, no harm done.
Goodman Brown’s confidence doesn’t last long, however. A wave of dread and fear soon overwhelms him as he sets out alone down a dark path through a forest that he imagines might be haunted by “devilish” Indians or other frightening beings—including even the devil himself—hiding behind every tree. Even so, he walks on until he encounters a mysterious man at a bend in the road. The man casually makes reference to having been in Boston fifteen minutes before. When the man asks why Goodman Brown arrived late, Goodman Brown replies, his voice now trembling slightly with fear at the sudden appearance of the man (even though such a meeting wasn’t entirely unexpected), that “Faith kept me back awhile.”
The forest for Puritans marked both a place of fear and a place of possibility. It contained threat (“heathen” Indians and a world out of the control of Puritan society, but also an escape from the pressures of that society and its members all watching each other for sin. For Brown, who is walking into the forest expressly out of a sinful curiosity, the forest seems to hide sin everywhere. The forest might also then be seen as reflecting his own mind, full of its own confusions and terrors.The mysterious man hints at supernatural powers by mentioning that he was in Boston just a few minutes before, an impossible feat. Hawthorne’s use of the double meaning of Faith’s name makes the story into a parable.
As the two of them walk through the deep forest in the darkening dusk, the narrator describes the man as ordinary and simply dressed, and considerably older than Goodman Brown. He looks enough like Goodman Brown that the two could be mistaken for father and son. Despite their similar appearance, the older man seems more worldly and at ease than Goodman Brown, as if he could sit comfortably at the dinner table of a governor or in the court of a King. The man’s one unforgettable feature is the large snake-shaped staff he carries, which in the shadowy light of the forest seems to be alive and slithering.
Goodman Brown feared that he would see a “devilish Indian,” but instead the devil (as the man’s snake-shaped staff suggests him to be) takes the form of a man who closely resembles Goodman Brown, and who wouldn’t look out of place in “civilized” Salem or Boston. The point is clear: the devil is just at home among the Puritans as he is among the “heathen” Indians. The snake staff recalls the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence, in which a devilish snake tempts Eve into sin. And one might argue here that the story of Goodman Brown is one of gaining knowledge of good and evil, of learning that good and evil are not always visible simply by their appearance and so can lurk anywhere. At the end of the story, Goodman Brown must try to live in the world with this new knowledge.
Sensing that Goodman Brown is tiring, the man offers him his staff to help pick up the pace. Goodman Brown refuses and begins to make his case for turning back toward home: he had agreed to meet up with the man in the forest tonight, nothing more, and he kept his word. Saying he has “scruples” concerning the business that the man wants to discuss, he declines to carry the man’s serpent staff. The man suggests that they start walking, and that he will try to convince Goodman Brown while they walk. Goodman Brown points out that nobody in his family, all good Christians, had ever agreed to meet up with a mysterious man in the woods at night, and he has no intentions of being the first.
Goodman Brown must choose whether to continue onward or turn back, the same choice he had to make at the threshold of his house. Once again, his family connections seem to urge him to turn back and stay in town; this time, instead of Faith asking him to stay in town, he thinks of the many generations of upright Puritans that came before him who would have wanted him to turn back. He believes that all his relatives have been saintly, and the idea of being the first sinner horrifies him. This is important, because it means that he measures his own goodness against the goodness of his community, not against an absolute sense of right and wrong; he wants to do good in order to fit into his community, not in order to be moral or devout. Put another way, Goodman Brown’s morals are hollow, held up from without rather than within. Further, this problematic framework for moral behavior emerges from the logic of Puritanism: the Puritans believed that the Elect were predestined by God to instinctively be moral and go to heaven, and so doing good became a tool for proving that a person was part of the Elect and a rightful member of the Puritan community rather than a legitimate expression of one’s internal moral compass.
The man shocks Goodman Brown by replying that he was good friends with Goodman Brown’s father, grandfather, and other Puritans and Puritan leaders, and has enjoyed acts of cruelty and sacrilege with them all. He mentions helping Goodman Brown’s grandfather, a constable, whip a Quaker woman through the streets of Salem, and he recalls helping Goodman Brown’s father burn down an Indian village during King Phillip’s War. Goodman Brown wonders why his father and grandfather never told him about their relationship with the man, but he immediately changes his mind and realizes that if there had been any bad rumors about them, they would have been kicked out of New England, since the community is so holy.
The man continues to reveal the hypocrisy of Puritanism, claiming that Goodman Brown’s ancestors hid their evil behavior behind their semblance of piety. Goodman Brown seems most shocked not that his father and grandfather were sinners, but that they didn’t trust him enough to tell him the truth, and that the family bond between them was therefore less strong than Goodman Brown believed. However, he understands that in Salem, it is even more important to seem saintly than it is to be saintly, and that the community would have responded to rumors of sin with ostracism, not mercy. Put another way, Goodman Brown is recognizing how Puritanism’s total refusal to accept any sin makes it essential to hide one’s own sins. At this point, though, Goodman Brown still believes that the community at large is so anti-sin because it is holy.
The man suggests that New England isn’t as holy as it claims, and describes drinking communion wine with deacons, scheming with the courts, and helping the governor. Goodman Brown is amazed, but argues that he has nothing to do with such high-up people, and that he wouldn’t be able to face his minister at church if he continued onward. The man bursts into violent laughter, and his staff seems to wiggle along. Finally, Goodman Brown argues that he can’t go with the man because it would break Faith’s heart. The man agrees that he wouldn’t want Faith to come to any harm, and tells Goodman Brown to go ahead and leave the forest.
After revealing all of Goodman Brown’s family as sinners, the man now reveals all Puritan leaders as sinners as well, meaning those men were only pretending to be saintly. Yet Goodman continues to believe that even if his own family and the unapproachable Puritan leaders might be sinners, at least the people and immediate leaders of his own community are good. When the man laughs at this, too, Goodman continues to believe that Faith, at least, is saintly and honest. Even though he is losing faith in his broader community, and even though he is realizing that he is a human, not a saint, he thinks it’s possible for someone like Faith to be perfectly good.
As the man speaks, someone comes into sight on the path ahead: Goody Cloyse, a pious old woman who taught Goodman Brown his catechism. She is moving very quickly for such an old woman, and mumbling something as she walks, perhaps a prayer. Goodman Brown is surprised to see her in the woods so late at night. To avoid being seen and questioned about his journey with the man, he hides in the woods. The man continues on the path alone.
Goodman Brown is as hypocritical as his father and grandfather; he wants to be thought of as good, and so he steps into the forest to avoid being seen by Goody Cloyse. His fear of the forest, and of whatever supernatural beings it might hide, is not as strong as his fear of being thought a sinner. Of course, one can also recognize that Good Cloyse also only lets down her appearance of goodness when she is in the forest; after all, Goodman Brown thought her unimpeachably good for all these years.
To Goodman Brown’s surprise and horror, Goody Cloyse greets the man as the devil and then addresses him as “my worship.” She observes that the devil taken on the appearance of Goodman Brown’s grandfather, and calls young Goodman Brown a “silly fellow.” She then complains that her broomstick was stolen by “that unhanged witch, Goody Cory” while Goody Cloyse had on a flying ointment made from the fat of a baby. She asks for the devil’s arm, but instead he gives her his snake staff. When Goodman Brown looks again, Goody Cloyse and the staff are gone
Once again, Goodman Brown learns that someone who he looked up to is actually a hypocritical sinner: like Goodman’s father and grandfather, Goody Cloyse is far less saintly than she pretends to be. As his teacher and his old family friend, Goody Cloyse’s closeness to the devil increases the pressure for Goodman to “follow the herd” and worship the devil. As a witch, she has a strong relationship with nature and the supernatural; like Goodman Brown, she goes into the forest to find the devil, but unlike Goodman Brown, she walks through the forest unafraid, uses plants in her flying ointment, and uses the devil’s serpent staff to make herself disappear.
Goodman Brown and the devil walk on together. The narrator says that the devil argues very persuasively for continuing onward, and urges Goodman Brown to hurry. The devil plucks a maple branch and strips its twigs and buds to make it into a walking stick, though the stick withers and dries out in the devil’s hands. They reach a gloomy hollow, where Goodman Brown sits on a stump of a tree and refuses to continue, saying that Goody Cloyse’s hypocritical example can’t make him abandon his Faith. Unworried, the devil leaves Goodman Brown the maple staff to use if he decides to continue on his own. Goodman Brown sits for a moment, happy not to have to return to town and face the minister and Deacon Gookin with a guilty conscience, and happy to be able to sleep well when he gets home.
Even though the devil is exposing the Puritans’ hypocrisy, Goodman Brown continues to believe that his wife is saintlike. Again, the symbolic name Faith lets Hawthorne simultaneously describe Goodman Brown’s sense of responsibility to his religion and to his wife. Goodman Brown’s stop-and-start journey illustrates his ambivalence toward sin and the devil: he resists the devil’s glib arguments, and he rejects Goody Cloyse’s example. Yet note once again that even as he resists the devil the relief he feels is a relief of having avoided the guilt of facing his saintly community, as opposed to a relief of having actually been saintly himself.
Just then, Goodman Brown hears horsemen approaching. He feels guilty for being in the forest and so hides behind the trees again. Even though it’s too dark to see the riders, he recognizes them by their voices as the minister and Deacon Gookin, riding along as if they were going to a church meeting. The deacon expresses excitement for a meeting that night, and says that there will be people there from all over New England, as well as some Indians who know a lot about deviltry and a young woman who will be inducted. Goodman Brown’s horror makes him feel weak and ill, and he leans on a tree for support. He begins to doubt if there is a heaven, but he looks up at the starry sky and vows that he will still resist the devil. He lifts his hands to pray.
Once again, Goodman Brown’s eagerness not to be caught in the woods reveals his hypocritical desire to appear saintly, though he knows his journey is sinful. The revelation that the minister and Deacon Gookin are also hypocrites horrifies him: even more than Goody Cloyse and the past generations of Browns, the minister and deacon are supposed to exemplify piousness and lead the Puritan community (and not feeling guilt when he saw them was a motivating factor in his motivation to resist the devil). It doesn’t occur to Goodman Brown that they might have his same human flaws. Though the surrounding nature has gotten darker and more ominous as Goodman Brown walked deeper into the woods, his desperation makes him turn to nature: he leans against a tree, and looks to the stars for a reminder of heaven, as if the stars could guide him now that the minister and deacon no longer can.
A mysterious dark cloud races across the sky above him, hiding the stars, and from it he hears a murmur of voices. He recognizes the voices of many of the people of Salem, both the holy and the unholy ones, and he recognizes his wife Faith’s sorrowful, pleading voice. The voices go away, then come back. The other voices seem to be encouraging Faith onward. Goodman Brown cries out her name three times and hears a scream in reply, followed by distant laughter, before her pink ribbon drifts down from the sky and catches on a tree branch. Goodman Brown snatches the ribbon.
The supernatural obscures nature as doubt and despair eclipse Goodman Brown’s faith in his wife. Again, Hawthorne plays with the double meaning of Faith’s name: Goodman Brown’s three outcries can be read as pleas to his wife or as appeals to both his and her religious belief. The falling ribbon, which initially symbolized Faith’s innocence, now also signify Goodman Brown’s lost faith and innocence.
Crazed with despair, losing all hope that there is good on earth, Goodman Brown exclaims, “My Faith is gone!” He calls for the devil and then grasps the devil’s maple staff and charges onward into the dark and the wilderness. The narrator describes Goodman Brown as a terrifying, crazed figure, and though the forest is full of terrifying sounds, Goodman Brown is the scariest thing in the forest, laughing and swearing and shouting as he runs. Suddenly he sees a red light and hears a familiar hymn sung with sinful lyrics by wild voices. He finds himself near a clearing in which a rock serves as a pulpit and four blazing pine trees illuminate a vast congregation of supposedly pious townspeople, dissolute criminals, and Indian priests. He sees Deacon Gookin and the minister, but he doesn’t see Faith; he begins to feel hope.
Stripped of his innocent “faith” in his wife, Goodman Brown becomes almost inhuman, more terrifying than his worst fears of nature and the supernatural. The Puritans believed that humanity could be divided into the saints and the sinners, and so, having lost his “Faith” and his last reason to strive for saintliness, he lets himself fully become a sinner, blaspheming and calling for the devil. The devil’s congregation is a travesty of a church, as if mocking the hypocrisy of the Puritans—who have been revealed to look saintly on the outside but be sinners within—but the hypocrisy of his community no longer shocks Brown or makes him feel ill: he has lost his faith and accepts that all humans are sinners. But he does not yet enter the clearing and join the throng, and the possibility that Faith might not be there keeps him from declaring himself a sinner.
The blasphemous hymn ends with a sound like roaring wind and howling beasts, the pine trees burn brighter, and a figure appears at the pulpit. The narrator notes that the figure resembles some of the most respected ministers of New England’s churches. A voice calls for the converts to come forward. Goodman Brown steps out of the forest. In the smoke he sees the shape of his dead father beckoning him forward and the shape of his dead mother warning him back, but he doesn’t have control over himself and he can’t stop. Deacon Gookin leads him and Goody Cloyse leads a veiled woman to the rock, where the figure welcomes them.
As the devil’s congregation begins, the usual order of things falls apart: nature melds with the supernatural, people considered to be saints in Puritan society stand with sinners, and humans harmonize with beasts. The devil’s resemblance to a minister and the ritual’s similarity to a church ceremony draw attention to the hypocrisy of self-righteous Puritan piousness. The appearance of Goodman Brown’s parents’ ghosts emphasizes his need for familial guidance, but their contradictory advice leaves him as helpless as before they appeared.
The figure tells them to look at the congregation, and describes the hypocritical piety of all the people assembled there, whom Goodman Brown and the veiled woman have looked up to. The figure promises to tell them all the dark secrets of their town: how church elders have seduced young girls, how young wives have poisoned their husbands, how young men have killed their fathers to inherit their wealth, and how young women have killed their babies. The figure describes the whole world as “one stain of guilt,” and promises that they will be able to make other people give in to the strong impulse to sin.
The devil’s speech and the sight of the congregation seem to further prove the hypocrisy of the Puritans and the folly of innocence and faith. The devil encourages Goodman Brown to doubt the most profound and sacred relationships, and especially family relationships: husband and wife, father and son, mother and child. The devil denies that humanity is divided into sinners and saints; instead, he claims that all humans are naturally sinners, and that the choice to sin is just a matter of giving in to nature.
The figure then tells them to look at each other. Goodman Brown recognizes the woman beside him as Faith. The narrator describes them as husband and wife trembling before the altar. All the assembled worshippers repeat the figure’s cry of welcome. The figure prepares to baptize Goodman Brown and Faith with a pool of something red in the hollow at the top of the stone altar—blood, or flame, or water reddened by the light—but before he can touch either of them, Goodman Brown cries out and warns Faith to resist. Goodman Brown finds himself suddenly alone in the forest, not knowing what happened to Faith. The trees are damp with dew instead of on fire.
After all his indecision on the halting journey, Goodman Brown must make a final decision whether to lose his faith and innocence, give into his community and family’s hypocritical example, and become a sinner. Though Goodman Brown can’t resist the devil on his own, the presence of his young wife gives him the moral strength to resist through her. His last-minute rebellion against the devil and his community leaves him suddenly alone, foreshadowing the distance he will feel between himself and his community and family for the rest of his life.
Goodman Brown staggers back to Salem the next morning, staring all around him like a crazy person. He sees the minister taking a walk by the graveyard before breakfast. But when the minister tries to bless him, Goodman Brown shrinks away. Through an open window, he sees Deacon Gookin in his home, praying, and Goodman Brown wonders what god he’s praying to. He sees Goody Cloyse in her doorway, teaching a girl the catechism, and Goodman Brown snatches the girl away. Finally, he sees Faith, still wearing her pink ribbons. She runs up to him joyfully and almost kisses him on the street, but he can’t respond to her loving greeting. Instead he stares at her sternly, then walks pass without saying anything.
Though Goodman Brown resisted the devil and avoided being baptized as a sinner, he lost his faith and his innocent trust in his Puritan community. Ironically, he cannot relieve his new mistrust of Faith and the other Puritans by questioning or accusing them, because to do so would be to admit to having seen them in the forest and to his own temptation by the devil: instead, he shrinks away from the deacon and stares wordlessly at Faith. Even though he has lost all faith in Puritanism, the hypocrisy of Puritanism continues to dictate his actions. Hawthorne draws attention to Faith’s pristine pink ribbons to begin to cast slight doubt on Goodman Brown’s supernatural experience in the forest.
The narrator wonders whether Goodman Brown’s night in the forest could have all been a dream, but says that even if it wasn’t real, it ruined Goodman Brown’s life. He became afraid and distrustful of everyone around him. Though Goodman Brown continued to go to church and listen to the minister, he would turn pale and feared that the church, the sinful minister, and his listening parish would all be destroyed. He often woke up at midnight and shrank from Faith beside him in bed, and when his family prayed together at morning or at night, he scowled and muttered to himself. Though he lived a long life and died a father and grandfather, he died unhappy and desperate, with no inscription on his tombstone.
The narrator’s question haunts Goodman Brown, and his doubt creates a permanent emotional barrier between him and all other people. Neither the narrator nor Goodman Brown can ever know whether the other Puritans are all actually devil worshippers, whether something sinful in his own psyche made him imagine his experience in the forest, or whether his adventure in the forest was nothing more than a dream, because in order to question Faith and the other members of the community about it, Goodman Brown would have to admit to being tempted by the devil, even if only in his mind. He cannot even speak honestly to his wife and future children, and he fails to truthfully guide his children just as his father and grandfather (might have) failed him. His fear of seeming a sinner makes him a hypocrite for the rest of his life. At the beginning of the story Goodman Brown thought that he could go into the forest and sin a little out of curiosity, and then come back home and continue on with his life. But whether or not what happened in the forest was real or a dream, what it revealed to Brown was that sin could be everywhere and that the logic of Puritanism—in which the appearance of even the slightest sin is dreadfully punished—ensures that all sin gets hidden and makes it impossible to every figure out whether anyone else is a sinner. And so he lives and dies faithless and isolated by his doubts.