Symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown”

Have you ever wondered what your seemingly innocent friends down the street do with their spare time? They might watch the television, clean, cook, and just relax. Or do they? Even your “religious” neighbor might not be acting in accordance with his or her claimed beliefs. No matter how people have to act in society it will not change how they act when being alone and tempted. It makes you wonder how well you know your friends. In Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Goodman Brown thought he knew his friends. In the short story, readers are left to discover, through symbols, this characteristic of human behavior themselves. This abundance of symbols allows for many personal interpretations of the reading, but one main understanding is that young Goodman Brown is fighting to hold on to his Faith. Throughout the night, he is tempted repeatedly because everyone he knows in the town is in the forest. While traveling, he is tempted by his companion and later by his Faith. Hawthorne uses colors and names to help the reader understand Goodman Brown’s dilemma. Through this use of symbols, Hawthorne characterizes every human as possibly having a false appearance.

One might argue that Hawthorne’s use of certain colors and names is unintentional and has no influence on the theme of the story. If we assume that he intended to have no other meaning behind his words than what they literally say, this could be correct. Great writers, such as Hawthorne, pick and choose words that build upon the larger theme they are trying to convey. To say the colors and names--such as black, pink, Faith, and Goodman Brown--were randomly chosen is to not acknowledge Hawthorne’s literary credibility. If the names were different, then the story could possibly be interpreted as a marriage conflict between the husband and wife. There wouldn’t be a single theme, but there would be many based on personal interpretations. Colors are just as important because they provided Faith and the staff with traits that otherwise would have been missing. Without the black snake, the staff would have been a regular stick. The pink ribbon’s role is to exaggerate the extent to which Faith is confused about her beliefs. This in turn leads us to Goodman’s Brown’s confusion over his beliefs. The colors and names in this story lead the reader towards a common theme. The way in which the theme is discovered depends on the nature of the reader.

Hawthorne’s use of names goes beyond the normal realm of meaning that everyday names carry, which simply put a label on the person to remember them by. The name, Goodman Brown, suggests that he is actually a good and honest man. Even though every gentleman during the time in which this story is set was addressed as “Goodman,” Hawthorne intentionally uses the name to reiterate Goodman Brown’s pure intentions. Also, Goodman Brown is constantly referred to as being young. This suggests that he is naive and has the potential to make great mistakes. The young man has much to learn and has not spiritually found himself yet. His wife, Faith, is similar. Faith symbolizes the honest and truthful belief in something that is usually based upon religion. Keep in mind that pure faith is hard to find.

With the meanings that these names carry, Goodman Brown and Faith greatly affect each other’s progress into the forest. As husband and wife, they are linked as one. Through this relationship, one can see that not only is Faith his wife, but she is also his religious faith. This dual purpose of Faith only makes it harder for Goodman Brown to enter the forest and leave Faith behind. Upon meeting his companion, the husband states, “Faith kept me back awhile…” (25). During this time, Goodman Brown couldn’t decide between Faith and the traveler. Although Faith did slow his progress to the forest, the temptation of the traveler was too much. During the journey, he experiences many moments of uncertainty and sinfulness and wants to turn back. At these times, Faith is more important to him than the traveler, who was called the Devil by a woman that night. His companion, who actually exhibits devilish qualities with his temptation and black-snaked staff, will not give up until the young chap completes his journey into the woods. Each time that Goodman Brown doubts his beliefs, his companion offers him a black staff to help him along the way. On numerous occasions, it is the staff that keeps him going. It’s as if the staff provokes evil thoughts that are too powerful to be overcome by the pure thoughts of Faith. Every step forward he takes into the woods, he comes closer to pure sin. Joan Easterly comments on this in her review. It states, “[Goodman Brown] lacks a deeply felt faith…” (342). Because he lacks complete faith, Goodman Brown is unable to resist the temptation of the Devil as he progresses into the woods. Granted, he does stop and remember Faith on numerous occasions, but if he had true faith he would not hesitate to turn his back to the path of sin. The only thing that continues to make Goodman Brown repeatedly question what he is doing is his devotion to Faith. Leo Levy has an opinion on this as well. He states, “[Goodman Brown’s] continuing willingness to join the community of sinners coexists with a reaction against that willingness” (377). This coexistence is vital to understanding the actions of Goodman Brown. He has faith, but not one strong enough to keep him curious about sin. On the other hand his faith exceeds the urges to explore sin. The relationship between faith and sin eventually favors sin because it is more powerful. The moment he hears the voice of Faith and finds her pink ribbon in the woods, Goodman Brown opens his mind and soul to sin. This shows his lack of strong faith in general. It did not take many temptations from the Devil for him to seize the faith of the young man. Now that the Devil has him, Goodman Brown sees that Faith is not who he thought she was. He has seen the other side of his wife and experienced the dwindling of his own personal faith.

Throughout the night, colors are important to understanding the reasons the characters act as they do. We do not realize that his companion is of evil sources until the staff is introduced. "But the only thing about [the older man] that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake…” (25). Both the words “black” and “snake” suggest evil. The black snake is representative of the evil forces of sin, which are pulling Goodman Brown into the forest. Recall that it was a snake that tempted Eve to eat the apple and sin. The black snake on the staff is doing the same. The companion tells him that the staff will help him along the way. Additional evidence that supports Goodman Brown’s continuing journey into the forest exists in his name as well. The color brown means wishful yearning or melancholy. This suggests that he is curious to find something new perhaps it is the sinfulness he currently lacks. Another important use of color occurs throughout the story, when Hawthorne describes Faith. He constantly refers to her as having pink ribbons in her hair. Pink is a combination of the colors red, which means passion or evil, and white, which means purity. We do not know which color Faith values. Her name suggests white but her actions suggest red. “[H]e looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons” (24). Here, Faith is favoring red with her melancholy air. In his article, Levy quotes other critics on their ideas as to what the ribbons mean. At one point he writes, “Connolly finds that they symbolize ‘illicit passion and purity’” (382). Following this, he states another hypothesis when he writes, “Darrel Abel considers the ribbons ‘a badge of feminine innocence’” (382). Here we see opinions that differ and coincide. Connolly, who is unsure, believes that the ribbons can be evil in passion or pure. Darrel believes that they represent the purity and innocence of the woman. This uncertainty of colors is important to understanding Goodman Brown. How can he believe in Faith when she doesn’t even know what to believe? Every time he begins to think of Faith in the forest, he wants to turn back but the strength of his relationship with her is too weak. The traveler, who possesses the staff, and the mysterious forest seem more important to Goodman Brown. Through this, we see that he is not only confused about Faith, but he’s also confused about his own beliefs.

Names and colors play an important role of establishing characters in “Young Goodman Brown” by revealing their true values and beliefs. The pink ribbons show that Faith is fickle because she simultaneously begs Goodman Brown not to go into the woods and doubts herself. At the end, Faith gives in but Goodman Brown does not. By using these names and colors to characterize the two, Hawthorne shows how society contains both good and evil elements. Society has many temptations, like the staff and the traveler, which we encounter daily. For example, we are commonly tempted by our friends, just as Goodman Brown was. By having Faith and the townspeople turn to evil, Hawthorne shows how society hides behind a false wall. Goodman Brown was tempted, but he did not give in after realizing people aren’t necessarily what they claim to be. The mere sight of Faith, whom he so strongly wanted to believe in, disgusted him and drove him to the good path. He sees how the townspeople and Faith act in a goodly manner while in public and how they act at night. This baffled and reassured him that he did not want to be like everyone else in the town. His personal faith was too strong. Through the symbolic use of names and colors, Hawthorne is saying that true faith lies not behind what one claims to be, but in one’s actions.

Works Cited

Easterly, Joan. “Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” Studies in
Short Fiction 28.3 (1991): 339-43.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Young Goodman Brown and Other Short
Stories. Dover Thrift Eds. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. Toronto: General Publishing Co., 1992. 24-34.

Levy, Leo. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” Journal of English and
Germanic Philology 74.3 (1975): 375-87.