What Can We Steal From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”?

Title of Work:  “Young Goodman Brown,” short story
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Date of Work: 1835
Where the Work Can Be Found: Thanks to public domain, the story can be found in many anthologies and even on the Internet.

Element of Craft You’re Writing About: Description

Discussion:
“Young Goodman Brown” is one of the big stories in the early American canon.  Sure, a teacher probably forced you to read this at some point, but that doesn’t mean the story can’t rock.  The story’s all about demons and how the authority figures around you are part of an evil conspiracy.  What more could a teenager want?  Goodman Brown kisses his wife goodbye and walks off into the dark, scary forest.  He happens upon people he knows from town…and then discovers that they are all celebrating the conversion of other townspeople to evil.  Just as his wife is about to be made a bride of Satan, Goodman Brown wakes up.  He finds his way home and his loving wife greets him.  Was he dreaming?  Goodman Brown doesn’t know.  He spends the rest of his life suspecting that everyone he loves is aligned with evil forces.

Hawthorne bookends his story with descriptions of Faith being affectionate with Goodman Brown.  At the beginning of the story, he writes: “And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap while she called to Goodman Brown.”  Faith begs him to remain at home and to stay with her…how sweet!

Here’s what happens toward the end: “Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him that she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.”  Aww, Faith is so excited to see her husband! She was even hoping for a PDA!

Hawthorne deliberately points out that Faith’s cap has pink ribbons.  Why do you think that might be?  Well, the cultural meaning of colors changes over time, but it seems fair to say that pink is a calm, gentle color.  I’m not sure that pink was distinctly feminine at the time…I’m not a color expert.  The long, flowing ribbons mimic the feminine convention of long, flowing hair.  This choice softens Faith and adds ambiguity to the story.  “Young Goodman Brown” wouldn’t be as much fun if we knew whether or not the evil ceremony was a dream, would it?

Look at the way Hawthorne describes the forest into which Goodman Brown walks:

“He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.”

Okay, so some of the writing sounds like 1835.  But that’s not a bad thing.  Read the passage as though you are sitting around a campfire.  Doesn’t it sound foreboding?  Check out the important word choices: dreary, darkened, gloomy, narrow, lonely, closed, peculiarity.  Would you see any of these words in a wedding invitation?  Of course not, unless the couple is somewhat eccentric.  Hawthorne uses words that make us uneasy to mimic the feeling that you get when you walk into a dense forest.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Use symmetry in your story to demonstrate change in your characters or their situation.  At first, Goodman Brown is happy to see his “young wife.”  At the end of the story, he shrugs her off.  This change helps us to understand how he feels.  There’s also a natural progression to the story; Goodman Brown is on an odyssey (pun intended), has meaningful experiences that changes his understanding of the world, then comes back home.  The pink ribbons are the same, but Faith is not…or is she?
  • Choose meaningful adjectives that create the proper tone.  Hawthorne USES his adjectives.  Instead of just telling you that the forest is scary, he tells you why it is scary and uses the adjectives to evoke common feelings.  I don’t know about you, but when I stand on the shore and look out to the ocean (or any big body of water), I don’t just feel that it is “scary.”  The endless waves ahead of me are dizzying in their regularity, removing my frame of reference.

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