Study Guide

Young Goodman Brown Loss of Innocence

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Loss of Innocence

So they parted; and the young man pursued his way, until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back, and saw the head of Faith peeping after him, with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons. (6)

Young Goodman Brown believes that Faith embodies kindness and innocence. But what if Faith's "melancholy air" is a sign that she's not so sheltered after all? She may be sad because she can relate to the moral trials that Brown is soon to experience.

"Poor little Faith!" thought he, for his heart smote him. "What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night. 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." (6-7)

Again: "blessed angel on earth," or not so much? All we have to say is that it's usually not a good sign if you're having bad dreams. (At least in literature.)

"Can this be so!" cried Goodman Brown, with a stare of amazement at his undisturbed companion. "Howbeit, I have nothing to do with the governor and council; they have their own ways, and are no rule for a simple husbandman, like me. But, were I to go on with thee, how should I meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village? Oh his voice would make me tremble, both Sabbath-day and lecture-day!" (21)

Young Goodman Brown's observations don't seem too ridiculous—but, when you think about it, this is basically like a kid who doesn't want to steal because he's afraid of his parents. He's not avoiding it because it's wrong: he just doesn't want to get into trouble. Not too mature.

"Ah, your worship knows the recipe," cried the old lady, cackling aloud. "So, as I was saying, being all ready for the meeting, and no horse to ride on, I made up my mind to foot it; for they tell me there is a nice young man to be taken into communion to-night. But now your good worship will lend me your arm, and we shall be there in a twinkling."

The best part about being evil is being able to convince other people to be evil, too. Peer pressure: just say no to devil-worship, Shmoopers.

"That old woman taught me my catechism," said the young man; and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment. (34-37)

Young Goodman Brown is shocked that his former mentor Goody Cloyse is really in the Evil League of Evil. He still has innocence to lose. The traveler with the staff, however, waits for Goodman Brown "calmly, as if nothing had happened." You could even argue that the traveler was teaching Goodman Brown a lesson about the dark side of respectable society.

Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree, for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint, and overburthened with the heavy sickness of his heart. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a Heaven above him. Yet, there was the blue arch, and the stars brightening on it.

"With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!" cried young Goodman Brown. (45-46)

Yeah… not so much. Sure, he doesn't join the evil assembly, but this whole story seems like one big loss of innocence—his loss of faith in other people.

"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."

And here we have it: innocence, lost. But notice that Goodman Brown hasn't actually done anything evil. Instead, he just imagines that everyone around him is doing evil. That almost seems worse to us.

And, maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path, rather than to walk or run. […] sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors. (50-51)

Oh boy, talk about a freaky psychotic break. You know those horror movies where it turns out that the hero is the bad guy? Hawthorne apparently invented them.

"Lo! there ye stand, my children," said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. "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!" (65-66)

Young Goodman Brown and Faith are just about to be brought into the "communion" of evil. But are they? Is it a choice they have to make—or is the loss of innocence something that the world inflicts on all of us?

When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence […] then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. (72-73)

In the end, it doesn't even matter if the wild night in the forest was a dream. Its effects are real enough, and Goodman Brown's loss of innocence is total. In fact, it is so total that everything that should console him—family, community, marital affection—just drives him deeper into his sadness.

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