With a title like "Young Goodman Brown," you're probably expecting a fun romp about a bright-eyed lad who strolling merrily through the forest, pretty much like a 19th-century Disney cartoon. Maybe even with some cute squirrels.
Not so fast. More like evil, witchcraft, and the sudden loss of innocence.
"Young Goodman Brown" is one of Hawthorne's signature stories—even if didn't exactly make Nathaniel Hawthorne famous. (That would be The Scarlet Letter.) So you can think of "Young Goodman Brown" (published in 1835) as a kind of preview of The Scarlet Letter (1850): all the same themes, many fewer pages.
"Young Goodman Brown" deals with some heavy stuff: the grip of the past, the power of social expectations, and the transformation of a single person's entire way of living. Sound good? Yeah, to us, too. But for some reason, Hawthorne repeatedly decided not to include "Young Goodman Brown" in his early collections of stories. Why? Did he underestimate what he'd written?
He wouldn't be alone. Herman Melville (the brains behind Moby-Dick) reacted to "Young Goodman Brown" the exact same way. At first, he assumed that it "was a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to 'Goody Two Shoes'" (Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses"). But when he actually sat down to read the thing, he decided that it was a work of disturbing genius.
So what can we learn from this, silly title and all? For one thing, "Young Goodman Brown" itself is a story about looking deeper. Its hero is a mild-mannered Puritan named young Goodman Brown (duh) who believes that he can see deep down into the corrupt soul of his community. And that's just what we have to do: think (and see) deeper.
Aside from water-skiing animals, some kinds of news stories seem to show up whenever there's a slow news day. Like rich philanthropists who turn out to be white-collar crooks. Or seemingly idealistic politicians who make shady deals. Or famous athletes with drinking problems. Or religious leaders doing not-so-religious things.
Yeah, stories about good appearances and bad realities are everywhere. And "Young Goodman Brown" is one of them.
But (as you could probably guess) it's more complicated than good versus evil, or good that really is evil; instead, it's a story about how evil is perceived and interpreted. When he encounters evil and hypocrisy, young Goodman Brown has some stunningly complex reactions. He's sometimes angry, sometimes intimidated, sometimes saddened, and, sometimes, excited and intoxicated by what he sees. You know, like watching a mafia movie and rooting for the bad guys.
Despite these complicated reactions, young Goodman Brown thinks that his situation is pretty simple. As he sees it, his hometown of Salem might as well be called Hypocrisyland, Massachusetts.
If you're a kid growing up a small town, you've felt this. (If you're not—well, maybe you've seen it on TV.) He's a small-town kid with high ideals who thinks he knows better than everyone else around him, and he's in for a big surprise: the world isn't nearly as simple as he thinks it is.
So, young Goodman Brown's dilemmas may be Puritan, but they're also surprisingly universal. Is the world really as bad as we think it is? Better? Worse? Hawthorne's story is here to remind us that there are no easy answers.