Hawthorne sets “Young Goodman Brown” in the New England town of Salem, where the Puritans tried to create a religious society with strict morals and pious norms, but also where the infamous Witch Trials took place. The Puritans believed that some people are predestined by God to go to heaven, and that those people are identifiable by their morality and piousness; people cannot earn their way to heaven by performing good works, but if they are part of the elect, they will instinctively and naturally do good. As a result, Puritan communities were profoundly focused on the value and necessity of the appearance of goodness, believing that it was a reflection of inner goodness and therefore a sign of one’s chance of heavenly redemption, and engaged in social policing to determine what counts as “good.” Hawthorne uses the setting to explore the dark side to the Puritan emphasis on the appearance of good.
At the beginning of the story, Goodman Brown believes wholeheartedly in these Puritan tenets, despite the fact that he himself is at that moment lying to his wife, Faith, saying that he is on an overnight business trip when in fact he is heading off into the forest out of curiosity to attend a witch’s meeting. He believes in the perfect goodness of his wife who seems to radiate pureness, and generally believes in the goodness of everyone else, too. In fact, he believes that after his dalliance in the woods with the devil, he will be able to return home and live as a good man with his perfect wife and go along with her to heaven. However, when he gets to the forest, in what may or may not be a dream, he discovers that essentially the entire town, including Faith, whom he had thought to be incapable of sin, are at this convocation, are “friends of the devil.” In horror, Goodman Brown concludes that “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name.” He concludes that everyone is evil, that the word “sin” means nothing because everyone is sinful. When Goodman Brown returns to the town, he is no longer the happy young newlywed he was when he left. He is bitter, stern, and gloomy and mistrusts the “good” appearances of everyone around him, instead seeing sin everywhere, hiding below that surface.
When looked at from a modern perspective, Goodman Brown’s revelation that everyone is sinful in some way seems obvious: of course no one is perfectly good, as Brown imagined Faith and many others to be. That’s just human nature. But it is here that Hawthorne levels his most profound criticism of Puritanism. Goodman Brown believes that his experience or dream has forced him to see through the lies of perfect goodness told by his religion. And so he abandons it. Yet the story presents his actions not as a triumph but a tragedy, and Brown lives a life of suspicion, sadness, anxiety, and gloom. The story, then, suggests that the true issue is Puritanism and its internal logic, the way that it demands all goodness or none, perfect purity or eternally damned sin. Such a world, the story suggests, is one at odds with the realities of being human, one in which no one who takes it seriously can live a good life because it is impossible to live a perfect one.
The Hypocrisy of Puritanism ThemeTracker
The Hypocrisy of Puritanism 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.
"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.
“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 fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man.
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.
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?
"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.”
“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.”