The Duplicity of Humanity: Symbolism and Duality in 'Young Goodman Brown'

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When it comes to people, places, and things what you see is not always what you get. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” that is exactly the problem for our young protagonist. Everywhere Goodman looks he can't help but see the dual nature of everything; even within himself. Everything that he saw as good and pure suddenly takes on a whole new meaning in his eyes. Hawthorne's story is over powered by duality and symbolism hinting to the light and dark side of human nature and life itself. Some of the symbolism is quite obvious, other times you have to read between the lines in order to see it.
One symbol that Hawthorne uses to show the duality is the character names. Two names stand out amongst the many characters, Goodman Brown and his wife Faith. Goodman's name makes him seem likeable and easy to relate to, giving him an “everyman” quality. His name also makes him seem young alluding to an innocence he has not yet lost. Later in the story we see him become a completely different person after his nighttime romp in the wilderness. Shying away from his fellow townspeople due to the evil he believes they hide within themselves. He even somewhat shuns his formally beloved wife when he sees her in the village, “...Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting” (399). He is no longer the innocent man he was, he becomes a sulking, distrustful, and bad humored man. The name Faith is wrought with even more symbolism. Her name smacks of purity and innocence, and even a childlike quality. The word faith itself is associated with religion and leads us to think of her as a very pious or morally sound person. In the end, we see that perhaps Faith is not what she first appeared to be as she seems to willingly accept the evil ways of the other townspeople. The ease with which she takes to their evil ways subtly hints that she may have had dealings of this nature before. Leo Levy in “The Problem of Faith in 'Young Goodman Brown'” goes even further in his assumptions, “Not the least terrifying aspect of the story is the insinuation that Faith has made her own independent covenant with the Devil. There is a faint suggestion that her complicity may be prior to and deeper than Brown’s” (120). By the end of the story we see Faith in an entirely different light, leading us to believe that her faith was perhaps not of the godly variety.
In “Young Goodman Brown” even inanimate objects seem to take on a dual personality, the staff is one of the best examples of this. A staff to a normal persons eyes would have no other purpose beyond aiding a person in walking. In the story, Goodman perceives the staff to “twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent” (392). Suddenly the staff is no longer a simple object, it takes on a life of its own. The fact that to Goodman the staff “bore the likeness of a great black snake” (392) gives it an innate evil quality. When the devil tries to tempt Goodman by lending him the staff it gives the story an almost biblical feel, making the staff the apple that Eve should never have eaten. Another example would be the trees that are on fire. Trees symbolize life, strength, freedom, and in some cultures even mortality. A burning tree, on the other hand, has a completely different meaning. It symbolizes death, the kill, mental illness, and has also been known to be a sign of the apocalypse. Again this symbol gives the story a biblical feel, reminding us of the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.
The ribbons in Faith's cap carry a great weight throughout the story. When we first meet Faith at the beginning of the story she is wearing a cap with pink ribbons. The fact that Faith is wearing pink ribbons makes her seem almost childlike. It most definitely gives her an air of youthfulness. The color pink to most people is associated with baby girls. It doesn't get much purer than that. The color pink isn't as pure as one would think when you think of how the color pink is made. In order to get the color pink you must first mix together the colors red and white. White is a symbol of light, purity, and innocence. All things someone would associate with God or a godly person. On the other hand, the color red is a symbol of guilt, sin, and anger. These are all things that would come from leading an evil life or allowing evil into ones heart. Faith wearing the pink ribbons in her cap shows the duality of her nature. It also shows that there was still goodness in her at the start. When she loses the pink ribbons it's a symbol of her final step toward accepting evil into her life.
When the devil is first introduced he is made to seem like just another person, “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” (392). It is not until a few paragraphs later that it becomes apparent that he is anything but a simple towns person. When Goody Cloyse happens upon the traveler she refers to him as “the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is” (393-394). The devil taking the likeness of Goodman's grandfather is his way of making it easier for Goodman to trust him. The deception of making himself seem ordinary and trustworthy is a symbolism showing that every man has the capacity for evil within, even Goodman's grandfather. Richard Fogle in “Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark” takes it one step further by saying that the devil uses his dual appearance to not only lure him further into the wilderness but also to “progressively undermine the young man’s faith in the institutions and the men whom he has heretofore revered” (17). The devil chose a form that would not only easily be accepted by Goodman, but would also make him question his own faith.
The story has another theme of duality in the nature of the characters. None of the characters seems to be who Goodman thought they were. Goodman even finds out things about his ancestors disproving them to be the upstanding people he originally thought them to be. Goody Cloyse, who taught Goodman his catechism when he was a child, is the first person that they come upon in the wilderness. Followed closely by not only Deacon Gookin, but the minister as well. When Goodman finds out that each of them has a dark side it starts to distort how he sees not only his fellow townspeople but humanity in general. Even Goodman's beloved Faith seems to have a dark side which is not revealed to him until the events of the witches meeting. The dual nature of all of the people, alive or otherwise, in Goodman's life forces him to realize that everyone and everything has a dark side.
The realization that Goodman comes to about the other townspeople forces him to question his own feelings. Right from the start we see the inner turmoil and indecision that Goodman has when it comes to his faith. He makes a conscious decision to enter the woods to meet with the devil in the first place. Once there he constantly stops and wants to return but never does. He continues further into the wilderness against his own better judgment. He even makes it a point to mention how neither his father or grandfather have ever gone into the wilderness. Goodman doesn't seem to have a very strong hold on his faith as an individual. His faith seems to be based on those around him. As long as they are god-fearing people and see him as a good and pious man then he is one. Once he sees that no one in his life is a completely good person he seems to give up on that side of his nature. He accepts the devil's maple stick and eventually makes his way to the witches meeting.
Finally, the fact of the journey itself is symbolic. When Goodman wakes up he has no idea if what just happened is a dream or reality. Even with the lingering idea that what he experienced could very well have been a dream it still permanently changes him. Goodman lived the rest of his life completely cynical of others and believed the worst of everyone around him. Leo Levy in “The Problem of Faith in 'Young Goodman Brown'” said, “His point is that the truth conveyed in the dream--that faith may betray us--is also a truth of waking experience.” (116). This seems to be exactly how Goodman sees it, whether a dream or reality there is still truth in what he experienced.
Hawthorne uses everything in his story, including the journey itself, to express duality. The long standing battle of good versus evil is extremely prevalent throughout the story. Goodman finds himself lost within himself trying to figure out exactly how to stay the good and pious man he always saw himself to be. In the end, whether real or a dream, his journey doesn't seem to give him the strength to become a better person. Instead he gives into the darker side of his nature by neglecting his neighbors and wife of love and compassion. His inability to except that all things in life have both a light and dark side leaves him detached from humanity, making him both socially and morally isolated.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Rpt. in Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama 2nd ed. Ed. DiYanni, Robert. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 391-399.

Levy, Leo B. “The Problem of Faith in ‘Young Goodman Brown.’” Modern Critical Views: Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 115-126.

Fogle, Richard Harter. “Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and the Dark.” Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1952.

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