Young Goodman Brown
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Speech and Dialogue
Here's a fun, deceptively simple game: go through "Young Goodman Brown" and find all the exclamation points. There are plenty of them, and they usually occur at moments of crisis. However, they also occur during public speeches, solitary monologues, and happy meetings. "Young Goodman Brown" is about characters who know that they are facing huge, important forces. It would be weird if they didn't exclaim something or other on a regular basis.
Despite their shared sense of melodrama, the characters all have distinct voices. Young Goodman Brown sounds serious and nervous, the traveler with the staff is assured and eloquent. The dark minister is formal, dramatic, and just a tad melancholy. Pretty nifty for such a short story.
Hawthorne's narrator describes one character as "a rampant hag" (61). Boom! Take that, witches!
But there aren't many moments like this in "Young Goodman Brown"—a story that's frequently vague on purpose. And it is often hard to say whether the narrator is giving his own opinions, or whether he's putting young Goodman Brown's ideas in the third person. Still, Hawthorne has a taste for big, blunt declarations, like "Now ye are undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind" (66).
So, why not use a big, blunt declaration to sum up the occasional character?
As far as we can tell, nobody is forcing young Goodman Brown to journey into the forest. All of his actions are freely chosen, which lets Hawthorne show us how Brown's conscience works. Brown decides, hesitates, and second-guesses himself. And he also spends a lot of time simply watching the other characters do things. The point? He's still figuring out his attitudes toward people, and toward the phenomenon of evil.
But characters like the traveler with the staff—their attitudes are firm. They have the power to act, and act dramatically. The same could be said of young Goodman Brown once his opinions settle down. Convinced that "there is no good on earth," he acts in consistent ways—first being wild, then gloomy (50). His acts reflect his increasingly firm beliefs.
Okay. If you're a creepy dude surrounded by burning trees, you're probably evil. If you're a sweet little woman with pink ribbons in her cap, you're probably not too bad. Scenery and accessories send some pretty blunt messages in "Young Goodman Brown."
Of course, you could argue that the members of the evil congregation are unexpectedly human, or that Faith's girlish wardrobe makes her badness an especially cruel shock. But tell us this, too: can you think of a single prop that is constantly associated with young Goodman Brown himself? We can't. His character is dynamic, hard to reduce to a single image or detail, right until the story reaches its end. And then, a lifetime of gloom awaits.