The Puritan religion dictated that everyone on earth was either an evil sinner doomed to burn in hell or a pure earthly saint destined for heaven. To avoid being perceived as anything but wholly good, Goodman Brown (who, like his wife, Faith, is also “aptly named”) is obsessed with the idea of veiling his own sinfulness. Goodman Brown’s paranoia as he navigates the forest, dodging behind trees in terror of being outed as a sinner, is a reflection of the police state-like environment of Puritan New England, in which merely being perceived as a sinner could mean banishment or death.
After the devil meets up with Goodman Brown in the forest and shares his tale of having befriended Goodman Brown’s pious family members in the past, Goodman Brown responds that “the least rumor of the sort would have driven them from New England.” When Goodman Brown and the devil come upon Goody Cloyse, the woman who taught Goodman Brown his catechism, he worries that “she might ask whom I was consorting with and whither I was going." Goodman Brown soon learns that Goody Cloyse herself is a witch, making a sinner out of someone he had considered a perfectly pious saint. Goodman Brown’s insight into the hollowness of religion happens when we realizes that people are not either purely good or purely evil. He sees in the witches’ conversion ceremony a mix of the “pious and ungodly...saints and sinners” standing side-by-side with the devil.
The devil himself delivers the clearest condemnation of the fallacy that everyone is either a saint or a sinner. He shows Goodman Brown that everyone has something to hide, and that sin is just a common consequence of being human: “Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly. This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds…”
The trees and the snake-like staff evoke the story of Adam and Eve and the universality of sin. Goodman Brown initially believes the Puritans to be the elect, an exception in the world of sinners, but he becomes suspicious of even the most respected members of his community. Though his name is literally good man, and his wife’s is faith, he eventually admits to his own moral imperfection and his wife’s wavering faith. When he exclaims that “sin is but a name,” he accepts that the world can’t be divided into sinners vs. the good and faithful; sin is human and universal.
Goodman Brown loses his faith, but he still can’t escape the idea that everyone is either a sinner or a saint; either he dreamed everything, and he is a sinner, or his experience was real, and everyone else he knows is a sinner. Because of this, after returning to Salem, Goodman Brown can’t confront Faith about the night in the woods. To do so would be to admit that he went to the devil’s conversion ceremony, or that he dreamed about it. Instead, he just “looks sternly and sadly into her face” when he reunites with her, and when he sees her praying each night, he “scowls and mutters to himself, and gazes sternly at his wife, and turns away.” He stays in Salem, remains married to Faith, and goes to church every Sabbath day, even though he has lost his faith, because he can’t risk the possibility that he is the sinner.
Saints vs. Sinners ThemeTracker
Saints vs. Sinners Quotes in Young Goodman Brown
"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!"
"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."
It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.
But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent.
“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.”
“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.”
“I shall take a cut through the woods until we have left this Christian woman behind. Being a stranger to you, she might ask whom I was consorting with and whither I was going.”
“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?"
Goodman Brown heard the tramp of horses along the road, and deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest, conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither, though now so happily turned from it.
"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given."
The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil.
"Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you."
The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man.
As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.
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.
"There," resumed the sable form, "are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet here are they all in my worshipping assembly.”
By the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.
“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.”
"Faith! Faith!" cried the husband, "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one."
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.
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.