Study Guide

Young Goodman Brown Memory and the Past

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Memory and the Past

"Too far, too far!" exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. "My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And I shall be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path, and kept—"

Goodman Brown has a pretty rosy view of the past. Sorry, dude, but we've all got skeletons in our closets—or at least, that one weird uncle with the shady past. As a devil-worshiper.

"Good, Goodman Brown! 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. They were my good friends; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake." (17-18)

Public whipping and village-burning: now there are some ancestral deeds to be proud of. Not. On the plus side, it's unlikely that Goodman Brown is planning anything quite so nefarious.

It was now deep dusk in the forest, and deepest in that part of it where these two were journeying. As nearly as could be discerned, the second traveler was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still they might have been taken for father and son. (13)

So, which is it: an unsettling representation of the future Goodman Brown? A resurrected version of young Goodman Brown's actual father? Or just a guy who happens to look a lot like our intrepid hero?

"Ah, forsooth, and is it your worship indeed?" cried the good dame. "Yea, truly is it, and in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is. But—would your worship believe it?—my broomstick hath strangely disappeared, stolen, as I suspect, by that unhanged witch, goody Cory, and that, too, when I was all anointed with the juice of smallage, and cinquefoil, and wolf's bane." (29-32)

Brain snack: "silly" used to mean "foolish" and possibly not the sharpest crayon in the box, if you know what we mean. So, basically, Goody Cloyse here is calling Goodman Brown a nincompoop for not understanding his past.

Once, the listener fancied that he could distinguish the accents of town's-people of his own, men and women, both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion-table, and had seen others rioting at the tavern. (47)

Young Goodman Brown uses his memories of Salem life to make sense of otherwise disorienting experiences. And notice the word "fancy": it's still not clear if any of this is actually happening.

At the word, Goodman Brown stept forth from the shadow of the trees, and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart. He could have well nigh sworn, that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke-wreath. (61)

Talk about the past coming back to haunt you: here, all of Goodman Brown's male ancestors are coming out of the smoke to draw him into a life of evil. (Or so it seems.)

"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 worshiping assembly.

You know how when you're little you think your parents are basically the best ever? And then when you grow up you start to realize that they're not so perfect after all? Yeah, that's what's happening here—only x10.

This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows' weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers' wealth; and how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones—have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant's funeral.

Goodman Brown is getting a new look at the past—not just his ancestral past, but the recent past of his neighbors. And it's not pretty. In fact, it involves infanticide, patricide, and husband-cide.

"By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin ye shall scent out all the places—whether in church, bedchamber, street, field, or forest—where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot. Far more than this. It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power—than my power at its utmost—can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other." (64)

The dark minister declares that age and authority should not be sources of intimidation. Instead, the Salem elders—and all of Brown's ancestors—are united in a community of sin. In other words: stop idealizing the past.

And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tomb-stone; for his dying hour was gloom.

It seems like the people of Salem will remember Brown mainly because he was such a downer. His tombstone, with "no hopeful verse," will be a cautionary reminder that future generations should, you know, live a little—and stop thinking the worst about people.

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